Companies abandon ships and crews in record numbers
– After the release of the Ever Given from the Suez Canal, her crew were held on the ship for four months while the owners agreed to a financial settlement with the Egyptian authorities. It is not unusual in the shipping industry for crews to be detained or simply abandoned, without pay, with no way to return home. Such dropouts appear to be reaching a record number, the the Wall Street newspaper reports, after more than doubling from 2019 to 2020, to 85. A union estimates that more than 1,000 employees are now on abandoned container ships or bulk carriers, but the actual number may well be higher. Some are stranded for years on ships running out of food and fuel.
Sometimes companies simply abandon a ship when the cost of repairs is too high or they are heavily in debt, in part because the sale can take years, even if a buyer is found. Some governments require crew members to remain on the ship until the owners pay the fees owed to the port authorities. Often the crew members don’t want to leave anyway for fear of losing any chance of collecting back wages. In recent months, a company in the United Arab Emirates has abandoned seven container ships and dozens of crew members to whom it owes a year’s salary. When the company runs out of money, employees cannot collect and are left aboard a crumbling ship.
The conditions are brutal. Some of the 14 cargo workers who ran out of food thought about suicide. “We cannot survive here,” said an engineer on an abandoned ship off Iran in a video. “Help us please.” An official with the International Transport Workers’ Federation who receives dozens of advocacy messages from crew members every day said: “This is a global humanitarian crisis. Four crew members spent 32 months 12 miles offshore trying to lengthen rations – “Breakfast, lunch and dinner, all we ate was rice,” one said – before begging for food from a charity.
The laws and regulations of the shipping industry and the lack of accountability of shipping companies are contributing to the problem, according to the Newspaper. The countries where ships are registered, called flag states, are supposed to require owners to look after crews, including refueling, paying them on time, and repatriating them at the end of their contracts. This doesn’t always happen and no one applies the rules, said the founder of Human Rights at Sea, an advocacy group. “The flag state hot potato exercise helps people get rid of the problem – it’s not anyone’s responsibility,” he said. (Read more shipping stories.)