Sixteen sailors from different parts of India have been on the MV ULA vessel for 15 months and have not been paid for almost a year.
For nine months, Santhosh *, a sailor from Srikakulam in Andhra Pradesh, has been stuck in limbo with 18 other crew members aboard the vessel MV ULA. For reasons beyond their control, they have remained anchored at the port of Shuaiba in Kuwait since March 2020. However, they had stopped receiving their wages even before that. Santhosh was promised a monthly salary of US $ 400, which he has not received for 11 months, since February. Some of his teammates haven’t been paid for 14 months.
Annoyed by the delay in bureaucratic procedures and worried for their families whose financial difficulties have worsened over the months, the crew members have been on hunger strike for 18 days, despite the fatigue of being on the ship since. more than a year. They claimed their pending wages for the entire time they were on board, before leaving the ship.
The MV Ula dropped anchor in the anchorage area of Shuaib Pot on 18.2.20. Due to the confinement, the crew change was not possible. Since then, these stranded sailors have been stranded in Kuwaiti waters. Everyday promises are kept but nothing has been resolved. Why are sailors treated like prisoners of war? pic.twitter.com/t6tvxEL4io
– Shaheen Sayyed (@shaheensayyed_) January 17, 2021
Events leading up to the strike
Crew members say they had been suffering from medical problems on board the ship since October 2019, after the ship began its voyage from Oman, due to a lack of medicine, fresh water and provisions on board, in apart from prolonged power outages. As their demands for wages and pending provisions grew stronger, in February they reached an agreement with the shipowner. Provisions were sent and pending salaries were paid to some of them. Tired of the working conditions, some crew members sought to leave the ship after reaching the port of Shuaiba in Kuwait, once the crew had been changed and their positions replaced.
Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the crew could not be changed. This was followed by complications with the ship’s cargo (clinker). Eventually there was no buyer for the cargo and in August 2020 the vessel was disowned or abandoned by its owner. By this time, some crew members had terminated their contracts with the company for various reasons, and 19 crew members remained on board. Sixteen of them are from India, one from Turkey, one from Azerbaijan and one from Bangladesh. Despite personal tragedies in some of their lives, such as the loss of loved ones at home, they were unable to return home, Santhosh explains.
The Kuwait Ports Authority (KPA) then took control of the vessel, and since then the crew has received provisions, drinking water and electricity from the Kuwaiti authorities. But they still did not receive a salary, and for most of them, who had already taken out loans to pay the agents who found them work, more and more loans were piling up at home, and their financial situation has worsened.
“We couldn’t send money to our families. Many of our family members have borrowed money from banks or taken out personal loans. Our families are waiting for us to pay these loans. We want our wages on hold, otherwise our lives will be miserable when we return home, ”said one of the crew, who has been on hunger strike for 18 days. He went on to say that it seemed like a better option for them to end their days on the ship than to go home empty-handed. “The lenders will not spare us because the loans are pending for 14 months. We will not disembark and sign until we have received our pending salaries, ”he said.
While the ship has been in Shuaiba port for nearly nine months, crew members say there has been talk of late that port authorities might sell the cargo, after which the crew would be sent home. However, the crew members are adamant not to come back empty-handed. With a growing sense of hopelessness and helplessness, the 19 crew members went on a hunger strike on January 7 to demand pending wages. They say they only survived on water and ORS (oral rehydration solution) for 18 days. “As our families are starving at home, we don’t want to eat either,” said a crew member.
– Shaheen Sayyed (@shaheensayyed_) January 24, 2021
On the other hand, there are also a few crew members who were ready to sign earlier, but were unable to do so due to the ship’s minimum security manning requirement. In this case, the certificate requires that at least 12 crew members performing certain tasks must be on board, according to one crew member, and in the absence of a replacement crew, they were forced to stay on board.
What awaits us
Manoj Joy, community development manager at the Sailors’ Society, a UK-based maritime charity that supports sailors and their families, explains that usually in such cases of abandoned ships, it is the responsibility of the P&I (clubs protection insurance and compensation, a form of maritime mutual insurance) to ensure the repatriation of seafarers.
According to the International Labor Organization (ILO) database on sailors abandoned on ULA, the ship’s insurer is not part of the mutual insurers of the International Group of P&I Clubs (IGP & I). The IGP & I said it therefore could not intervene in the seafarer issue, saying the issue “is entirely in the hands of the flag administration”.
Another option, Manoj says, is that the crew members could take the matter to court on this matter, ending with the auction of the ship, the proceeds of which could be used to pay their wages. “But it’s a long process. First, they would have to find a lawyer in an unknown foreign country who would help them. And then you have to find a suitable buyer, which can take a long time, ”he says.
The vessel was sailing under the flag of the Republic of Palau, an island country where the vessel was registered. Palau ended the vessel’s registration in September 2020, after its registration certificates expired, rendering it flagless. The IGP & I had previously suggested that Palau revise its list of licensed insurers, if they have reason to believe that the ULA insurer has evaded its obligations under the ILO Maritime Labor Convention. .
“A ship is like an island in the country where it is registered, but it becomes very easy to abandon it in such situations,” Manoj explains.
According to the ILO, as of January 6, the Indian government said that once Kuwaiti authorities resumed the visa application process that had been suspended due to the pandemic, Indian recruitment and placement agencies registered (RPS ) who had hired the crew would ensure that they were disembarked from the ship and repatriated, with their wages fully paid. The Directorate General of Navigation said it had asked the Kuwaiti authorities to seize the Kuwait Port Authority for the payment of wages and the early repatriation of Indian seafarers, and also to intervene with the owners of the vessel for the settlement of unpaid wages. .
Manoj says that although most ports are not very favorable, Kuwait’s port authorities have been helpful to the sailors, providing them with basic necessities. However, they are not responsible for paying their wages, he adds. “But here, since there is freight, the port may be able to take care of it after its sale. However, once the sailors are disconnected and leave the ship, there is no guarantee that they will receive their pay later, ”he said.
With their financial situation exacerbated by the pandemic, the sailors are in desperate need of their wages, as they have not been paid for almost a year.
Holding the shipowner accountable in such situations is extremely difficult, according to Manoj. “It’s even hard to find them. From the registered address of the vessel there is a chain to the final owner which can be difficult to trace, ”he says. According to the ILO database, the Qatari government said it had taken action against the president of the company that previously owned the vessel. He also said that several arrest warrants had already been issued against the president and that the company had been blacklisted since February 2017. However, as of October 2020, authorities were unable to capture the president.
Manoj says incidents like these should serve as a wake-up call to the ILO and other maritime stakeholders to close gaps in the implementation of maritime labor laws. “Often unscrupulous shipowners and exploitative agents who help them hire sailors get away with it quite easily. It is the crew members who are the most vulnerable and the most penalized, ”he said.
Shaheen Sayeed, an activist who has worked with stranded sailors on several occasions, notes that becoming a sailor involves a huge investment. “To be a sailor, you have to spend around Rs 5-6 lakh on education. Agents who promise lucrative foreign jobs to Indian sailors also collect around Rs 3-4 lakh for a job. After spending so much money, very few succeed, while some, as in the case of ULA, are stuck in abandoned ships without pay for more than a year. Sailors complain that what they are experiencing is modern day slavery, ”she said.
However, there is still hope in this case, says Manoj, than in many other much more distressing episodes. “Right now, at least, there is a possibility that the cargo will be sold and the sailors will be repatriated on partial wages,” he said.
* Name changed