In January, the MT Iba ran aground on the UAE’s Umm Al Quwain beach, surprising locals and alarming authorities. Yet investigations into the history of the 5,000-tonne oil tanker revealed something even more troubling: the ship had been stranded at sea for four years, with its five-strong crew unpaid for two of those years, as the vessel’s owner, Alco Shipping, ran into financial trouble.

While the crew of the MT Iba has received some compensation for the hardships they have endured – Shark Power Marine Services bought the rights to the vessel, and have flown the crew home with around 65% to 70% of the wages they were owed – the incident is just one example of a growing abandonment crisis in the oil and gas industry. 

Data from the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) and the IMO Labour Organisation has shown that 2021 is on pace to set new records for the number of vessels abandoned by their operators, leaving sailors and seafarers in a precarious position.

The complexities of enforcing international law at sea, and the logistical challenges raised by the Covid-19 pandemic, have made protecting seafarers particularly challenging. But this has not stopped organisations, from legal firms and union groups to charities, working to safeguard sailors. Yet a key question remains: in a sector driven by profit, can these workers’ rights ever be properly protected?

Seafarers stranded

The MT Iba case is one of the more extreme examples of seafarer abandonment in recent years. Cut off from Alco, which had been unable to pay the crew’s salaries, the ship was unable to put in at a port, and had seen supplies of food, fuel, and medicine dwindle to breaking point. 

In January, the ship, which was anchored off the UAE coast, was blown ashore when strong winds and turbulent tides broke the chains holding the vessel in place, bringing the ship to the world’s attention.

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By GlobalData

“That case was one where the ship managers and the owners were unable to continue to pay the seafarers, and the vessel was left at anchor in UAE waters for a sum total of coming on to four years, during which time they did not go home to see their families,” says David Hammond, CEO of Human Rights At Sea (HRAS), a charity which works to protect the rights of seafarers. 

“They were in irregular communication, and they had problems with supplies, [including] basic supplies of diesel to run generators.”

HRAS has been fighting the corner of the MT Iba crew since 2017, when an investigation into its then thirteen-strong crew revealed that Alco had not paid the crew’s wages for six months, and had denied them access to medical care for another five. Alco’s response, to cut the crew down to just five members, was evidently not enough to balance its books, with the five remaining crew owed around $235,000 in unpaid wages four years later.

Yet the human cost remains the most shocking consequence of this incident, with the sailors’ physical and mental health put under considerable stress by their plight. Andy Bowerman, regional director at the Mission to Seafarers in the Middle East and South Asia, notes that “the seafarers and their families have been deeply affected – the time on board has had physical, emotional, and potentially long-lasting psychological impacts”.

The MoS is a charity that has been heavily involved in the incident, and was largely responsible for negotiating with Alco to secure back pay for the sailors.

“The crew particularly spoke of the impact on those at home, who have been unable to complete medical treatment or attend school because of a lack of funds,” continues Bowerman. 

“I visited the crew regularly, and they would often speak of feeling depressed, induced by endless days of waiting in the anchorage. Two of the seafarers missed significant life events – a marriage and a death – and the mental impact of not being present is yet largely unknown.”

Enforcing legislation

Crucially, Hammond notes that such incidents are sadly commonplace in the marine industry, saying that the MT Iba case is “probably the worst case that we’ve heard of, but it is not an uncommon issue within the shipping industry”.

“According to the IMO and the IMO Labour Organisation’s joint database on abandonment, in 2020 there were 98 new cases,” Hammond continues. “This year so far, according to the IMO, [there have been] 28 cases within the first quarter, which last year was a record and this year, if it continues the way it’s going, it is on course for a record as well.”

The Covid-19 crisis has been a key driver behind this recent spike in cases of abandonment, with the pandemic highlighting the difficulties of enforcing many of the legislations currently in place to protect seafarers.

“Abandonments will continue to happen while international law is not enforced in the region, or where local laws fail to prioritise seafarers,” says Bowerman, looking ahead to future legislative changes that could better protect seafarers. 

“In the UAE, there is talk of a new maritime law that will have at its heart the ability for authorities to arrest and auction vessels ahead of court proceedings – therefore enabling them to resolve the situation for creditors, including seafarers.”

Hammond also suggested that the difficulties of enforcement are a key contributor to the increase in abandonment cases.

“They have labour rights under the Maritime Labour Convention 2006 (MLC), but the problem that Covid-19 and the global pandemic have brought out with the crew change crisis is that whilst you have established international legislation, any legislation, rules, or legal instruments are only effective if they can be enforced,” explains Hammond. 

“And what has come to the forefront of the pandemic is that, [regarding] the MLC, there are problems enforcing what the flag states have signed up to.”

Flag states and vicious cycles

The “flag state” system Hammond refers to also leads to another challenge, that of a disconnect between a vessel and its owners. Under international law, every ship must fly the colours of a particular state, in order to gain access to ports for trade and resupply; the MT Iba, for instance, operated under the flag of Panama.

But as Hammond notes, “flag state changes are undertaken by the owner or the manager”, rather than the crew responsible for operating the ship. In some cases, national governments can also make changes to flag states, as Panama did in 2019 when it struck 59 ships connected to illegal oil deliveries to Syria from its naval registry.

While the MT Iba was not implicated in the scandal, and the ship continued to operate under the Panamanian flag until its grounding, the incident casts an ominous shadow over maritime operations. 

Private ship operators are eager to align themselves with so-called “white flag” countries, those with a robust record of legal compliance, and avoid the “black flag” countries, which represent a riskier investment. However, as operators shift allegiance from one flag to another, their crews can be left in no man’s land.

The tier system used by the Paris MOU to separate countries into white, grey, and black flag categories can also create a vicious cycle for the crew of a vessel that has its flag pulled by an operator or even national government. 

A ship that is no longer supported by a white or grey flag country may only be able to find a supporter from the black flag states, effectively tarnishing the reputation of the ship and its crew, and making it difficult for that ship to find friendly ports.

“If you’re in the UK or Europe, and many other countries [that] have strong national legislation and protections for the individual, and freedom of expression and democracy, then you have a strong basis to protect your human and labour rights,” says Hammond, highlighting how this tier system can leave seafarers without adequate protections. 

“But if you are coming from countries who are less studious, or care less about the issues of fundamental freedoms and human rights, the nationals of those states aren’t given the same level of protection.”

A change in perception

Yet one of the positives to come out of the MT Iba case is the widespread support for the beleaguered crew, from actors and bodies across a number of sectors.

“That was a case that came to the forefront in 2017, which HRAS first reported on, having been alerted to the issue by a UK-based NGO, Justice Upheld,” explains Hammond. 

“We were the first people to get knowledge of what was happening on that vessel, they passed it to ourselves, we issued a case study, as we do as an organisation, and concurrently, the likes of the Mission To Seafarers and the ITF union, picked up on it.”

The case has already led HRAS to publish a charter, with support from legal firm Reed Smith, to highlight the rights of seafarers, and offer practical legal advice to those affected by abandonment. Yet Hammond is concerned that until seafarers and sailors are considered to be keyworkers, the threat of abandonment will continue to haunt the sector.

“Until the seafarers can be seen as key or essential workers, and until that key [or] essential worker status is unanimously agreed with at the IMO, which it’s not at the moment Until then, you haven’t got equal and fair treatment of those key [or] essential workers, who are keeping us fed and keeping PPE and medicines moving around the world,” says Hammond.

“And that is what the general public is sheltered from.”