Seafarers abandoned by unscrupulous or bankrupt owners were supposed to have been protected by new legislation that came into force in 2018. But today, at a time when their industry is reaping windfall profits, seafarers can still find themselves enslaved and unable to claim the relief due to them under international law, detained on board their ships by indifferent or hostile port States.

This summer, Pakistani sailors in a fleet of tankers were effectively imprisoned on their ships, unpaid, often unsupplied, sometimes under court orders to work without contracts or pay, racking up well over $1 million in wages that should have been returned. to 90 families in the midst of a national disaster at home.

The Saint James Shipping crew abandonment debacle may be on its way to being resolved now, but the fact is that it was supposed to have been made impossible four years ago. The 2006 Maritime Labor Convention (MLC) was later amended to make stranded seafarers the liability of insurers – even in cases where a financially distressed owner waived premiums.

blame game

As TradeWinds has previously reported, the parties to the Saint James case – owner, ship manager, mortgagee, insurer, trade creditors, port states, flag state – have spent months of blaming each other in various combinations for the debacle.

Now the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) representative in the case is pointing the finger at Saint James’ protection and compensation insurer, the American Club.

The club returns the favor, accusing the sailors’ union of unfair and aggressive tactics.

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The MLC as amended in 2018 requires P&I insurers to provide maintenance, repatriation and up to four months salary for abandoned seafarers. Exemption “will be granted promptly at the request of the seafarer or his designated representative”.

But according to ITF representative John Wood, the American Club “never provided anything to the ships’ crews” until the recent repatriation of the crew of a decommissioned 13,554 dwt Lua ( built in 2010) in the Dominican Republic.

Part of the problem may depend on when a ship’s crew can claim the redress they are owed.

The American Club insists he played by the rules.

“The union has a one-sided, non-commercial view of things and it’s an unfair view of the club,” legal director Daniel Tadros told TradeWinds.

“We the clubs are not the bad guys here. We are here to help but they are upsetting us at every turn and that is not in the spirit of the MLC. The spirit of the MLC is to help the abandoned crew members and we are all here to help, not to be harassed and upset by the ITF.

If he and the ITF’s Wood agree on anything, it’s that the Saint James case is an extreme case that has tested the modified MLC.

In particular, Wood said, the drafters did not think of the case where P&I clubs refuse to provide assistance until the crew leaves the ship, and port states refuse to let the crew disembark, whether for reasons of port security or because of political hostilities as in the case of the Pakistani crew in Indian ports.

This compounded the problems for the crews of two vessels, the 18,041 dwt Aeon (built in 2012) and the 11,479 dwt Sol (built in 2007). Both have now been auctioned off in Indian courts, with one crew paying a month’s salary, the other none at all, and both awaiting legal proceedings that could take anywhere from 18 months to three years.

“The crews of these ships have teetered from disaster to disaster,” Wood told TradeWinds.

“First, the ruthless disregard of owner Saint James in abandoning the crews. Second, the inaction of the P&I club. The American Club has utterly failed to do what it was obligated to do, namely to provide the crew with the financial security stipulated in the MLC.

“Third, the reneging of its agreement by the mortgagee, EnTrust Global.”

(TradeWinds previously reported the forgery allegation and a $270,000 payment by charterer Cargill International to the crew of the Aeon.)

“Fourth, the Indian courts, where the crew have been left at the mercy of a legal system where recovering wages will likely take months or even years,” he said.

The shipping industry is a system with so many moving parts that in the event of shameful exploitation, it can be difficult to find the correct part to blame. But maybe that’s the point.