05 December 2023
Thirteen Filipino abandoned seafarers have made it home after more than five months aboard a livestock carrier ship, the Yangtze Harmony, thanks to the intervention of the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF).
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The ship’s owners abandoned seafarers and the vessel after the ship was arrested in October 2022 in Singapore over an unpaid fuel bill. That is when the shipowner also stopped paying the entire crew, leaving them without wages or a way to get home. By April, the crew were owed a massive USD $429,972.
The ITF said the Harmony’s Hong Kong-based shipowner had a long history of abandoning crew, and its vessels have been detained before for violating safety and crew welfare rules.
But what the ITF’s inspectors didn’t expect, however, was that the shipping company had more abandoned seafarers in addition to the Harmony at the same time.
Between the Yangtze Harmony (IMO 9318917) and the Yangtze Fortune (IMO 9336282), the ITF’s months of advocacy would recover USD $1 million in back pay owed to the crew, as well as flights home and the feeling of freedom for every one of the 43 thankful abandoned seafarers.
Two ships abandoned
Soar Harmony Shipping Ltd abandoned the Yangtze Fortune (IMO 9336282) after Harmony’s sister vessel, also a livestock ship, was seized by the Australian Federal Court at Portland, Victoria over the owner’s refusal to make urgent repairs.
The abandoned seafarers of the Fortune turned out to be much more fortunate than their fellow Filipino colleagues aboard the company’s sister ship at anchorage in Singapore.
The first reason was that half the Fortune’s crew went home in a matter of weeks, rather than languishing on board for more than five months — as was experienced by the entirety of Harmony’s abandoned seafarers in Singapore.
This was only possible because the ITF successfully lobbied to have the Fortune’s flag State reduce the ship’s minimum manning levels.
The ITF was able to make the case as soon as it become clear that the Fortune would not be leaving anchorage anytime soon, with its expensive repairs still required by Australian authorities in order to sail anywhere.
Ships which are ‘laid up’ or can be considered non-operational typically don’t need the same crewing levels as ships engaged in open ocean navigation or the passage through busy shipping lanes.
For Fortune, the change saw its minimum number fall from 30 to just 16.
The second major difference between the two crew’s experiences of abandonment comes down to support for, promotion of, and adherence to crew members’ labour and human rights by the parties with obligations.
In Australia, the abandoned seafarers had clear communication about what was happening to their case. They knew how to access shore leave and medical care. The Fortune’s crew were visited several times by local welfare and union representatives – including the ITF. The 16 who chose not to go home when the crewing requirement was dropped even enjoyed a Christmas dinner on board, courtesy of the Salvation Army, with good spirits helping to speed up the days until the ship’s sale and the seafarers’ many thousands in wages finally paid out.
The Australian Federal Marshall kept the Fortune’s abandoned seafarers updated on the ship’s progress towards its sale. This regular communication put emphasis on providing options to crew to consider, reiterating key information about their various labour and human rights, such as those under the Maritime Labour Convention.
The Fortune did not have to endure months of uncertainty and confusion at their situation while the two vessels were under arrest by the respective countries’ authorities.
“We’re all very relieved to see the crew of the Yangtzee Harmony finally going home, better yet with half a million dollars of their owed wages in hand,”
“We’ve secured for these seafarers more than a million dollars in owed wages – money that I very much doubt crew would have reached their pockets, ”
“But I can’t help noting that the process took more than two months longer in Singapore than it did in Australia. Adhering to the rights of seafarers shouldn’t be a lottery for crew. Their rights are their rights no matter where they find themselves being underpaid, exploited, or abandoned. All port states must be encouraged to respond more quickly in the interests of seafarer welfare.”Ian Bray, National Coordinator, Australian ITF Inspectorate
Singapore’s legal system leaves crew in limbo
On 25 October 2022, the Singapore Sheriff’s court seized the Yangtze Harmony on behalf of Glander International Bunkering over an unpaid fuel bill. That began a legal process to sell the ship and pay off its debts, including the USD $429,972 in unpaid wages owed to the abandoned seafarers.
While lawyers, insurers and bureaucrats slowly processed the case on shore, the abandoned seafarers waited and waited. Unable to return home to the Philippines, or to work and send money in their stead, their families struggled with their absence – emotionally and financially. Some fell deeper into debt as a consequence, and in one case money ran out, leaving a seafarer’s loved one unable to pay for mounting medical bills.
“It’s a complex process in any jurisdiction when a shipowner defaults on payments,”
“But authorities must realize they have a clear responsibility under international law to act swiftly in cases where crew welfare is in jeopardy.”Steve Trowsdale, Coordinator, ITF Inspectorate
Singapore ratified the Maritime Labour Convention (MLC) in 2011. This specifies how cases of abandoned seafarers should be handled. Trowsdale argues that in delaying proceedings for more than five months, Singapore may have contravened the MLC.
Trowsdale said he was looking forward to the upcoming publishing of joint ILO-IMO guidelines authored by the ITF and shipowners’ association ICS.
The Guidelines on how to deal with cases of seafarer abandonment are aimed at port states (in this case, Singapore and Australia). They make clear that port states should prioritise getting crew home first and worry about money matters later.
They explain how the port states can adhere to the provisions of the MLC through practical examples, such as replacing the abandoned seafarers, wherever possible, with a local team. Or by relieving by putting the vessel in a dry dock, or shifting it to a guarded anchorage. All of these methods can reduce the number of seafarers required to stay on board for safety and watchkeeping.
Swedish quibbles while seafarers suffer
The Swedish P&I Club provided financial security insurance for this ship. Under the MLC, if a shipowner fails to pay the crew, the insurer should pay up to four months of the owed wages and cover the cost of crew repatriation. However, the P&I club initially delayed payment, insisting that it needed a court order first.
“That’s not how insurance is supposed to work,”
“The policy is due to be paid whether or not Swedish has a letter from the court, and whether or not Swedish thinks it can reclaim its costs. Their losses are not a concern for crew – ever. This money should have been paid out immediately to crew for their owed wages.”Steve Trowsdale, Coordinator, ITF Inspectorate
Swedish eventually did pay the crew; after initially getting the account number wrong.
Port states must do better to protect abandoned crew’s mental health
Sandra Bernal is the ITF’s Flags of Convenience Campaign Network Coordinator for Asia Pacific. She has been leading ITF’s advocacy for Harmony’s crew, working day and night for almost six months to get the 13 home and paid.
“The seafarers on board the Yangtze Harmony were suffering from fatigue, anxiety and stress, of that there is no doubt,”
“As would anyone dropped into a distressing and confusing situation such as this – abandoned far from home.”Sandra Bernal, Flags of Convenience Campaign Network Coordinator, ITF
Bernal said the contrast between the way authorities in Singapore and Australia handled the two abandonment cases showed how a port state’s response to abandonment can make a huge difference to the immediate welfare and mental health impacts of the affected crew.
“In Australia, efforts were made by authorities to inform crew of their rights, to check on their welfare, and to put their human needs above the commercial interests of the parties vying for a share of the ship’s sale value. There are elements of this kind of approach that I would like to see more widely adopted across port States.”
“I am just thrilled that they are finally home… I was in daily contact with them, and at times I was very worried about the impact that the uncertainty was having on their mental health.”
“We have to remember that abandoned seafarers are not criminals – they are the victims in this situation. They are only there because their employer, the shipowner, let them down and did wrong by them. Crew should never be made to pay the price of their employer’s negligence – in money, time, or mental wellbeing,”.Sandra Bernal, Flags of Convenience Campaign Network Coordinator, ITF
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