Constanta, Romania. On an abandoned ship in the port on the Black Sea coast lives a marine engineer who has been waiting four years to receive a salary – so that he can return home. A similar story is now taking place off the coast of Somalia, where an entire ship’s crew – anchored in an area of ​​the Indian Ocean that is particularly popular with pirates – is waiting for payment. Meanwhile their ship is getting filled with water.

Fourteen more sailors are stuck on the cargo ship Aizdihar, which was abandoned off the coast of the Iranian port city of Bender Abbas, and have no more food and fuel. Some considered suicide. “We will not survive here,” one of the ship’s crew said in a video call earlier this year, looking down. “Please, help us.”

The shipping industry is responsible for 90% of the world’s trade and has a volume of about $ 14 trillion. According to the International Maritime Organization (IMO), which operates on behalf of the United Nations, abandonment cases are defined as a situation where shipowners do not pay crews for more than two months and do not cover the cost of returning to their homes. In the coming year, it seems, the numbers are expected to be even worse.

“We connected with the stray dogs.” Abdin Ahmad at the port of Constanta, Romania / Photo: Petrut Calinescu

More than a thousand sailors are abandoned on cargo ships and tankers at the moment, according to the International Transport Workers’ Organization. But from conversations we have had with sailors who have been abandoned on such ships, with shipowners, with maritime transport organizations and with other factors in the field – it seems that the number is even higher. This is because many workers are afraid to speak out, afraid that they will be blacklisted and will not be able to get a job again. “It’s a humanitarian crisis on an international scale,” said Muhammad Archadi, the organization’s coordinator for the Middle East, adding that he wakes up every morning to dozens of WhatsApp messages from distressed sailors.

Here are some examples from dozens of cases: In the UAE, a shipping company has abandoned seven tankers in just the last few months, leaving behind dozens of crew members – each of whom owes a full year’s salary. Five other crew members who were abandoned near a tourist site in Dubai lived almost exclusively on rice for ten months, and only recently returned to the beach after four years.

Last year a team that was mostly Egyptian was abandoned in Sudan. The ship was sold, and the new crew manning it consisted mainly of Sudanese – who in turn were abandoned in Egypt. Three of them are still living on the ship, sailing for them off the shores of the Suez Canal and have not been paid for nine months.

Ship cemetery

The source of the default is the consolidation process going on in the industry. A situation has arisen where six shipping companies ship most of the containers in the world and sweep record profits: According to New York investment management firm Blue Alpha Capital, the last three months of 2020 were the best ever quarter for the maritime transport industry.

The giant companies have pushed off the map the small competitors that hold modest and old ships. These are the ones who have run into financial difficulties not far from collapsing – enough cancellation or even one significant delay, and it will happen. So when debts accumulate or when the cost of repairs becomes too expensive – some choose to abandon the ship or sell it for dismantling.

Such a sale can take years even on normal days, but in the age of the epidemic traffic restrictions make the process even more difficult, as many of the players participating in it – buyers, bankers, supervisors, etc. – could not come to see the tools offered for sale. In such cases, when the shipping company runs out of money, the crew is basically left with nothing – except an abandoned ship to live in.

There are also governments that require sailors to stay on board as guarantors until shipowners pay port taxes. And yet, the more common cases are of sailors refusing to get off the ship until they get paid. It is clear to them that as soon as they leave – the chance of receiving what they deserve will be reset. Most of them enlist the help of friends and family who spend money on food, and say they would rather stay until the ship is sold for spare parts – a process that can take years – than return home empty-handed.

Under a UN-sponsored agreement signed in 2013, with the aim of regulating working conditions for shipping crews, cargo ship owners are obliged to insure the vessels also for the purpose of handling abandoned crews. Many countries in the Middle East have not signed and enforce the agreement, To become cemeteries for abandoned ships, an example of this can be found in the Suez Canal anchorage in Egypt – at the entrance of one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world a ship has been standing for years, with sailors on board. Kenan Mete), who was detained in Suez while its owners and Egyptian authorities quarreled over unpaid debts.He returned to his home in Turkey in July.

A more familiar story is that of the EverGiven crew, the giant ship that got stuck and blocked the Suez Canal for six days in March this year. Staff members were held hostage for four months, until its owners reached a multi-million dollar compensation agreement with Egyptian authorities.

When the ship becomes a prison

At the heart of the problem is the sheer lack of transparency under the supervision of the shipping industry. According to the International Maritime Organization (IMO), shipowners are primarily responsible for the well-being of sailors, but reality proves that in cases of abandonment, in most of the world’s oceans, the consequences are minimal.

In 2016, a team mostly Syrian was abandoned aboard the cargo ship Lady Didem, after not being paid for a year. Seven sailors docked in Greece for four months, relying on loans given to them by Captain Wissam al-Hamud to buy food and water. They sent WhatsApp messages asking for help to the ship’s manager, a Turkish citizen named Mustafa Demirel, until the ship was sold. After receiving payment, the staff members left the place.

Demirel then claimed that this was a problematic crew, which refused the arrangement he offered them – that they would be paid as soon as they left the ship. This is not the first time a ship operated by Demirel has been abandoned with the sailors. Last year a ship crew named Ali Bey was abandoned in Romania after inspectors at the port of Constanta noticed that they did not have proper documents, and that some of them had not been paid for more than a year. Since then four crew members have remained on board, waiting for their pay. Heat in front of a small kerosene stove, and rely on electricity that works intermittently. The team says they have twice reached agreements with the owner about the rent, but most of the money has not yet arrived.

Until the payment comes, try to dispel the boredom.  One of the crew members of the Eli Bay ship in the port of Constanta / Photo: Petrut Calinescu

Until the payment comes, try to dispel the boredom. One of the crew members of the Eli Bay ship in the port of Constanta / Photo: Petrut Calinescu

The dispute has escalated into a court in Romania that is considering whether to transfer the case to Panama, where the ship is registered. But the team fears that if they give up the fight to get home, they could lose a salary of about $ 200,000 – which should have been paid to them.
Meanwhile, to pass the time they play cards and throw chicken bones to stray dogs roaming the harbor. Sometimes they sit on the steps of the nearby duty free shop and stare at passersby. But most of the time they just sleep, lie in bed until the afternoon.

“We live in iron chains. It’s a prison,” Captain Ebola Daha says, showing us WhatsApp messages in which he nods to the ship’s admiral, “he wants to break us.” Demirel, on the other hand, demands that the crew leave the ship and let the court decide the dispute. Indeed, he has an interest in having the trial conducted in Panama, where the ship is registered. Although the countries where the ships are registered are supposed to make sure that the owners take care of the sailors and ships, many of them do not take care of that.

According to David Hammond, founder of the British organization Human Rights at Sea, countries are obliged to make sure that ships carrying their flag pay seafarers on time, provide them with food and return them to their country at the end of the contract period: “But these countries treat it like hot potatoes. “, Which allows all parties to roll the problem on – as if it is nobody’s responsibility.”

Just a little over a year ago the whole world predicted the magnitude of the disaster that might occur in the unsupervised shipping industry. In 2013, the Russian ship Rhosus arrived at the port of Beirut, carrying 2,750 tons of the lethal substance ammonium nitrate, and was then abandoned because it was unfit to sail. The owner declared bankruptcy and disappeared, leaving the crew on board with no food or basic supplies.

After a year, the sailors were evacuated, and the Lebanese authorities brought the chemicals ashore. Then, in August 2020, the ammonia tanks exploded, killing more than 200 people and damaging billions of dollars that collapsed the Lebanese economy.

The UN Security Council met in June to discuss another ship that is likely to cause a similar explosion: Off the coast of Yemen, in the heart of a war zone, the FSO Safer, one of the world’s largest oil tankers, is loaded with 1.1 million barrels of crude oil. , Whose engines are not working, and was abandoned in 2017 in the shadow of the war in the area. Enough stray missile or damage to the crumbling steel body – to cause a huge explosion and leak. Which is already on the verge of starvation.

Survive the storm

Riasat Ali, a 52-year-old marine engineer from the Pakistani city of Faisalabad, boarded the Iba in July 2017, with a one-year contract. He hoped to fund his son’s studies at the university in this way. Four years later, Ali is still on the ship.

The Abe, carrying the Panama flag, was abandoned shortly after it was joined by owner Elco Shipping, who were unable to meet their debts. Ali and three other crew members, from India and Myanmar, spent the next 32 months trapped 18 km off the coast of the UAE. They ate all the food they had until they had very basic products left. “We ate rice for breakfast, lunch and dinner,” he says. Ali, “We did not even have sugar or salt.” The sailors, who were in danger of starving, appealed to the British charity Mission to Seafarers for help with food and water.

In January they were attacked by fierce storms that broke two anchors for them. For a frightening 12 hours the ship tilted 45 degrees to the side. “The chief engineer and I were on the bridge of command, too scared to talk,” Ali recalled. “We tried to lie down, but the angle made us vomit.” The ship was swept up nearly 32 miles as it ran aground off Umm al-Quayin, a popular resort town in Dubai known as a kitesurfing site.

The nightmare ended in February. Ali and crew members were allowed to get off the ship, after being sold to another company from Dubai, which agreed to pay 70% of the $ 230,000 unpaid to the crew. Trotty-eyed and wearing torn T-shirts, the sailors descended the ship’s ladder and swam ashore to collect their wages. “We did not get everything,” Ali said, “but we already had to go back home to our families.”

The Rolling Sea Cork That Launched Shipping Companies | Uri Pasovsky

An eight-month voyage – including a forced stop in Egypt, a cargo unloading in Rotterdam and London, and then a faltering voyage to Asia – ended last month when an Ever Given ship arrived for repairs at Qingdao port in China. The images of the ship in a dry test, like a huge whale out of the water, well illustrated the damage done to its bow. The humans standing next to her looked like ants. It is no wonder that the huge ship, which is 400 meters long and capable of carrying 20,000 containers, has managed to paralyze a significant part of world trade.

For six days in March, the Haver-Gwen stood stuck across the Suez Canal, blocking the passage between the Red Sea and the Mediterranean. The result was a sea traffic jam that disrupted trade between Asia and Europe, sending ships to alternative routes, much longer. In retrospect, this was another detail in the chain of events and circumstances that created one of the great stories of 2021: the disruption in global supply chains.

Like the plight of the besieged sailors on abandoned ships, the global shipping crisis was intensified, and in fact was largely caused by the corona crisis. But while behind the abandonment of the ships there is an economic inefficiency, the supply chain crisis has actually propelled the shipping industry to record profitability in the past year – or at least the giants that control the vast majority of it.

Ever-diversity, huge as it may be, is only one part, and quite tiny in the story. A much more central aspect has to do with the laws of supply and demand: demand for consumer products in the West, fueled by aid grants and economic recovery – has begun to skyrocket far beyond the capacity of the shipping industry leading 90% of world trade. This main story, only intensified following a chain of circumstances that led to one rolling cork.

Imagine for example a situation where in the starting point in China, the activity of factories and ports was disrupted due to cases of infection that led to mass isolation. Whereas at the destination point in the West – and especially in the US – the unloading of the ships was delayed due to a shortage of truck drivers who would take the containers to the warehouse.

The delays in unloading the ships disrupted their schedule for the future, thus creating a domino effect that is still with us. To this can also be added a shortage of containers, due to reduced production in the shadow of the plague and trade war; the herd effect of American retailers.

Supply and demand forces, along with governments that have stepped in to address the problem, are expected to cause the bottleneck to eventually open. The capacity of the shipping industry is also expected to increase. But it takes time. Meanwhile, shipments are lingering on the waves – and shipping companies are sweeping record profits.

By Editor

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