On March 29, after being stuck sideways in the Suez Canal for nearly a week, the Ever Given was unmoored. With that, the world’s attention, rapt for days by global shipping, turned elsewhere.
That’s a shame because the Ever Given and its crew didn’t get to travel on to their destination. Instead, they were seized by Egyptian authorities. Their treatment wasn’t unusual. All over the world, seafarers endure the same tragic fate: stuck on their ships, sometimes for years, because shipowners and governments can’t solve their disagreements. Sometimes, they’re eventually turned over to authorities after committing no crimes.
They’re the hidden victims of the world’s increasing dependence on shipping.
What caused the Ever Given to get stuck in the Suez Canal? The answer to this question will decide the liberty of the megafreighter’s crew, who are now being held—with their freighter—in a lake adjacent to the Suez Canal. The Suez Canal Authority (SCA) argues the captain made mistakes on his ill-fated journey while the Ever Given’s owners claim the SCA shouldn’t have allowed the vessel to enter the canal during a massive sandstorm. At stake is a $550 million compensation the SCA is demanding from the Ever Given’s insurers. Until it has been decided who’s at fault and who should pay, the crew can go nowhere.
Freighters are regularly seized by foreign governments. Some, like Egypt’s SCA, do so over disputed services and payments. Some, like Australia, inspect vessels for adherence to global environmental and seafarer welfare rules, detaining them if they discover misdoings. And some simply seize vessels to make a geopolitical point. That’s what happened to the Swedish-owned, British-flagged Stena Impero in 2019, when Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps detained it in an apparent response to the United Kingdom’s seizure of an Iranian oil tanker suspected of breaking European Union sanctions on Syria. And every time, crews have to wait on board until others decide their ship can travel on.
That can take years, and sometimes, the decision doesn’t really ever come. For example, the owner may decide the fight over a stranded vessel isn’t worth it and simply abandons the ship. “We’ve just been dealing with a crew whose ship was stranded off the coast of Mombasa; all Syrians,” said Ben Bailey, the Mission to Seafarers’ director of advocacy. “We’ve been looking after them and supplying them with food, water, and oil for their generators. And while they’re waiting, they’re not receiving any wages. We have to remember that most seafarers come from developing countries and support families.” According to figures from the International Chamber of Shipping, the Philippines provides most lower-ranking seafarers, called “ratings,” followed by China (although Chinese ratings largely crew Chinese ships), Indonesia, Russia, and Ukraine. China is the biggest supplier of officers (who again mostly crew Chinese ships), followed by the Philippines, India, Indonesia, and Russia.
For crews in limbo, stuck really means stuck: Although a seized or abandoned vessel is typically anchored at a harbor, crews are not allowed to leave it. And the situation is worse for crews of abandoned ships, who have no idea when they’ll be released from their floating prisons. As long as they remain on board, the ship’s owners should technically pay them, although unscrupulous owners typically have no intention of paying their abandoned ships’ crews even if they do stay on board. Consider the fate of the Azraqmoiah, a cargo ship abandoned off the coast of the United Arab Emirates for 18 months. Even when the owners finally resurfaced and the captain and two remaining crew members got paid, they only received 80 percent of what they were owed. “There’s no guarantee that the abandonment will be resolved,” Bailey noted. “In some cases, the owners are a small company that may be failing, and they deliberately abandon the ship so they can write it off. In some cases, it’s serious companies that have fallen on hard times.” In all cases, the crews pay the price.
The International Labour Organization’s database of abandoned vessels contains countless such stories. The Panama-flagged Axis, for example, arrived off Benin in October 2018. When it reached the Port of Cotonou, the Axis’s nine crewmembers—four Pakistanis, two Filipinos, and three Ukrainians—informed local authorities they were short of food, water, and fuel and hadn’t been paid for three months. By December 2020, the crew was still in Benin, with the two Filipinos remaining on the Axis. And spare a thought for the nine Azerbaijanis and three Russians who have been stuck on the Maltese-flagged Bakhtiyar Vahabzade in Istanbul for two years. The Bakhtiyar Vahabzade ran out of water and fuel long ago, and the crew hasn’t been paid for one and a half years, but the owner—the Turkish firm Palmali—is nowhere to be seen. In fact, 13 Palmali ships are currently abandoned, the 150-member crew on them owed $3.2 million in wages.
All this is, of course, illegal. The 2006 Maritime Labour Convention spells out in great detail every aspect of seafarers’ employment—but it has only been ratified by 97 countries. And rogue firms wishing to abandon their ships know which ports belong to nonparticipating countries, such as the UAE. Even if your ship has been abandoned at a port in a country that has ratified the convention, said Victoria Mitchell, a maritime expert at the global risk consultancy firm Control Risks, “what can you do? If you need to get ashore to contact a lawyer, will you be able to do that? You may not be permitted ashore if you don’t have valid documentation, and there are language issues. There’s also a question of awareness-raising because to make a claim against your employer, you need to know your legal rights.”
Who’s going to help? Good Samaritans are in short supply. “With abandoned ships, nobody feels responsible,” said Simon Lockwood, a maritime expert with the global insurance broker Willis Towers Watson. “It’s a matter of who blinks first or who feels most embarrassed.” What can happen became clear on Aug. 4 last year, when a shipload of ammonium nitrate stored in a hangar in Beirut’s harbor exploded, killing nearly 200 people, injuring some 6,000 people, and causing untold devastation in the capital. The nearly 3,000 tons of ammonium nitrate in that hangar were there because the owner of the ship, a Moldovan-flagged freighter traveling from Georgia to Mozambique, lost interest in it after the boat developed technical problems while docked in Beirut. Lebanese lawyers managed to get the crew released from the ship, and local authorities acted responsibly by taking the explosive chemicals ashore—but then apparently forgot about them.
Irresponsible shipowners, in other words, get away with murder. Although abandoned ships rarely cause mass deaths, the desperation of being on a deteriorating vessel with just a small group of other people, without pay and with no way of getting food, fresh water, and other provisions, has caused some seafarers to take their own lives. In January this year, an Indian sailor who had been stuck on his asphalt tanker for 13 months took his own life. Others have attacked their crewmates. “Imagine being stuck with the same 10 people for months on end without being able to go anywhere,” Lockwood said. “In shipping, human life often becomes a commodity. Good shipping companies will always look after their crews, but there’s also another side of the industry.” Even without being stranded on abandoned ships, seafarers suffer from far higher rates of depression than the general population: 25 percent versus 6 percent (with Germany as the control group), according to a 2019 report by Yale University researchers.
If all this weren’t difficult enough, last year, COVID-19 brought yet more bad news to the world’s more than 1.6 million seafarers who service the global economy. “At one point last year, we had some 400,000 seafarers who couldn’t get home,” said Guy Platten, the International Chamber of Shipping’s secretary-general. “Many were stuck because COVID rules prevented people from traveling.” Eventually the United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution where countries pledged to help seafarers get home. Soon after, maritime organizations launched the Neptune Declaration, where they commit to ensuring crews are allowed to leave their vessels and fly home after their tour of duty (typically a period of a few months).
But the tale of COVID-19 and global shipping—which transports 80 percent of the world’s goods by volume—is far from over. Although crews need to disembark at their various ports of call and are indisputably crucial to the running of the globalized economy, they haven’t been given priority access to coronavirus vaccinations. When the delta variant, first seen in India, began spreading rapidly, some ports simply refused to let Indian seafarers disembark. “Countries don’t want to take risks, but they want the supplies,” Platten said.
As things stand, only a small number of charities, such as the Mission to Seafarers, look after maritime workers in dire straits. The International Labour Organization and some governments try to help too. Canada, Australia, and the United Kingdom are considered top-of-class in enforcing labor rules. “And there are many good companies and crew managers that really look after their crews,” Mitchell added.
Indeed, in many ways, “seafaring is an enormously rewarding career,” Platten noted. “It’s well-regulated and well-paid, and most employers are good. It lifts people out of poverty in developing countries. But if the current situation continues, we’ll be faced with a skills shortage.”
And when the world’s shipping companies can no longer recruit enough seafarers, we’ll find out how absolutely vital they are to our daily lives. For now, a clap for crews is in order—or better yet, regular attention to those who find themselves in the claws of bad employers.