After 3 years abandoned at sea without pay, this oil tanker crew is on cusp of going home

When a shipping company from the United Arab Emirates hit financial trouble in 2017 and abandoned an oil tanker off the coast of Dubai, it left a small crew still aboard, stranded at sea without pay or a way home.

Those men have been on the tanker ever since, but a chance at repatriation for the five remaining crew seems to finally be within grasp.

“The owner told us: ‘Please wait, I want to sell the ship and after I will clear the salaries,'” remembers Nay Win, who came to work as chief engineer on the MT Iba from his home in Myanmar.

“So we are waiting, waiting, waiting — be patient, be patient,” he said.

Win started work on the tanker in 2017, a few months before the owners, Alco Shipping Services, asked the crew to anchor about eight miles off the Dubai coast. In early 2018, the company had been blacklisted by the Indian government for seafarer abandonment, and by the end of that year, the company had ceased communication with the MT Iba.

After years at sea, the oil tanker MT Iba ran aground off Umm Al Quwain, United Arab Emirates last month. (Reuters)

As the passing months turned into years, Win found himself unable to support his family back in Myanmar. He told The Current that they were forced to borrow money to survive, and his son and daughter both had to leave university when he couldn’t keep up with the fees. With Win stranded 4,000 kilometres away, the family faced both a pandemic and — more recently — a political coup

“Without money, how can they eat … with no money, how do we manage?” he said.

Last month, the tanker broke anchor in a storm, and ran aground just off a public beach in Umm Al Quwain, where it has become a spectacle for beachgoers. 

At the end of January, a representative for Alco Shipping Services told local media that a buyer had been secured for the vessel, previously valued at $4 million US, but the process had been hampered by the pandemic. The sale to Shark Power Marine Services was agreed recently, but the final sum paid for the tanker has not been made public.

Coming ashore for the first time in three and a half years, the crew met with Alco representatives last week, and agreed to accept $165,000 US in unpaid wages, about 70 per cent of what they’re owed.

A crew member of MT Iba is seen aboard after the tanker ran aground in Umm Al Quwain, United Arab Emirates January 26, 2021. REUTERS/Christopher Pike (Abdel Hadi Ramahi/Reuters)

Win and his crewmates may not have received any money at all if they had left the ship sooner, said Andy Bowerman, regional director for the Middle East and South Asia with The Mission to Seafarers. The charity supports merchant crews around the world.

“The only collateral that they have is the ship itself,” Bowerman said, adding that crews are sometimes persuaded to leave abandoned vessels, then never hear from the owners again.

The crew also didn’t have their passports — Win’s has expired — or the necessary visas to enter the U.A.E, he explained. And due to safety concerns, it is illegal for a crew to abandon a ship in open water.

“They find themselves stuck really, between the devil and the deep blue sea,” he said.

Bowerman said his organization has been supporting the crew through “a pretty grim existence.”

The men had been living in the same clothes for months, washing in cold water or seawater, and relying on his charity for food, he told The Current’s guest host Rosemary Barton.

“The first thing is to make sure they’ve got food, they’ve got water, they’ve got a little bit of oil for the generators,” he said. 

The organization also wanted “to be physically present, to listen to their stories, bring them news of home, try and ensure that their well-being is looked after as much as possible.”

Now stuck close to the shore, the MT Iba has become a spectacle for beachgoers. (Christopher Pike/Reuters)

Following the agreement over pay, the crew agreed to stay on the ship while it is towed to safety, with hopes that the repatriation process can begin early next month.

Win’s journey home may be delayed however, as the political situation in Myanmar complicates travel. 

“I’ll stay in the U.A.E. maybe one month, two months, I don’t know,” he said.

“I’m already thinking I will retire, I don’t want to do seaman life; I’m too afraid.”

Seafarers bearing brunt of pandemic

There have been cases of stranded seafarers in Canada — including two sailors who spent 35 months on a docked cargo ship in Quebec City — but Bowerman said the pandemic’s economic downturn has led to a rise in numbers facing neglect.

Pre-pandemic, his charity had an average caseload of 60-70 seafarers, which has now risen to almost 200, he said.

“Not [all] abandoned, but making a kind of claim of some sort of justice issue, or some well-being issue to us,” he said.

Ian Ralby, an expert in maritime law, said that merchant crews may be the driving force behind the global economy — transporting goods around the world — but they are not well protected. 

“The maritime legal regime is incredibly complex and interwoven with lots of different interests,” said Ralby, CEO of the I.R. Consilium, a maritime law and security consulting firm.

The Maritime Labour Convention, which came into force in August 2013, lays out a bill of rights for seafarers. It covers employment terms, health and safety, living and working conditions, and access to medical care.

Ralby said the MLC “has been making a big difference for the well-being of seafarers, but it isn’t completely perfect when it comes to taking care of this situation, nor is it completely enforced for all flag states.”

The ship broke two of its anchors in a storm last month. (Abdel Hadi Ramahi/Reuters)

He wants to see its protections extended globally, and better enforced among signatory countries.

“There is a Maritime Labour Convention that has been making a big difference for the well-being of seafarers, but it isn’t completely perfect when it comes to taking care of this situation, nor is it completely enforced for all flag states.”

Ralby said the protections offered by the Maritime convention should be extended, and better enforced.

“We cannot afford to lose the workforce that is so vital to the global economy,” he said.

Nowhere to come ashore during COVID

He also pointed to a broader issue during the pandemic: that an estimated 400,000 seafarers are working to keep shipping routes operational, but cannot come ashore.

In December, Canadian federal officials detained a container ship in Halifax after workers complained they hadn’t been able to leave the vessel in 13 months.

People walk at the beach near the MT Iba on Feb. 8. (Abdel Hadi Ramahi/Reuters)

The Maritime Labour Convention sets the maximum time on board without leave at 11 months, but in December a number of unions and labour groups reported that seafarers globally were serving up to nine months longer than that

While Canada has exempted crews from travel restrictions and allows controlled shore leave at Canadian ports, some shipping companies imposed stricter rules to avoid COVID-19 outbreaks among their crews.

In November, Transport Canada announced the establishment of the National Seafarers’ Welfare Board, led by members of the maritime industry. The group is tasked with promoting seafarers’ access to welfare services on and off shore, and will advise the government on policy and regulatory issues such as shore leave and crew changes.

In a statement, then Minister of Transport Marc Garneau said the federal government “recognizes the essential role seafarers play in our economy and remains a strong advocate for the safety and welfare of maritime workers.”

He said the welfare board is “an important step in protecting seafarers both at home and abroad.”

But when seafarers do have grievances, they don’t always seek legal aid, said Peter Lahay, Canadian national co-ordinator with the International Transport Workers Federation.

“They generally don’t reach out to maritime lawyers because they haven’t got deep pockets,” said Lahay.

He said that his organization has 140 operatives around the world, and is a port of call for “every seafarer that goes to sea.”

“They reach us by text, by WhatsApp, by emails — by just by carrier pigeon, just about,” he told Barton.

“We are the ones that actually have to stand in front of these workers and look them in the eye and take their desperate pleas and try to assist them. And there’s just no mechanism to really do it.”

Written by Padraig Moran. Produced by Lindsay Rempel and Ryan Chatterjee.