MLC Week: The human face of crew abandonment

Gerard Bradbury of the International Transport Workers Federation speaks with reporters Friday on the dock in St. John's next to the stranded Russian cruise ship Lyubov Orlova. The ship and its crew remain in the capital city while the fate of the vessel is decided by its owners.Ñ Photo by Gary Hebbard/The Telegram

ITF inspector Gerard Bradbury on the dock in St. John’s, behind him the stranded Russian cruise ship Lyubov Orlova.        —   Photo courtesy St. John’s Telegram website

Time to bring on the humanity.

At some point when you talk long enough about international regulations like the Maritime Labour Convention — the focus of our posts this week — the details and technicalities and jargon start to take over. So in Part Two of our look at abandonments in Canada, we turn to the moving human stories that have prompted plans to amend the MLC to address the plight of workers stuck aboard vessels that disgraceful shipowners have simply walked away from.

For the Canadian inspectors who have all too often had to look abandoned crew in the eye and explain the steep and uncertain road they will travel to claim the wages they have been cheated of and the flights home they are owed, such a tool cannot come soon enough.

One of the most heartbreaking Canadian abandonments unfolded in 2010 on the East Coast, where 51 Russian crew aboard the cruiseship MV Lyubov Orlova were stranded in St. John’s by Losco Shipping, a Russian owner that walked away rather than pay the $251,000 they owed the cruise company for repairs it had made to their ship. The Russian company didn’t think it should pay crew $321,000 for the five months’ wages they were owed either.

The Orlova was seized on a trip into St. John’s in September of 2010, over an unresolved financial dispute between Cruise North Expeditions and the Russian shipowners. With the disappearance of the owners, crew would be left to fend for themselves for three long months — dependent on local residents, who donated food, clothes and cigarettes until crew were repatriated to Russia.

It was a difficult and infuriating case for the ITF and our Atlantic inspector, Gerard Bradbury. It would be difficult for any of us to watch workers go unpaid. To know they sat day after day, hoping hard that a stranger might deliver them fresh food. To watch five adults huddle around a single cigarette, sharing the smoke among themselves. To watch local members of trade union Unifor hand over a stack of pizzas, hoping it might help stretch the food supplies on board. Or to watch the cruise company refuse to ask for crew wages when its lawyers went to court with the company’s claims.

All of this human misery unfolded as Russian news outlets aired glowing stories about the great care and good conditions crew were living under – apparently to fend off any demand that the government step in and do the right thing by its own workers.

Gerard recalls every trip from Halifax to St. John’s to try to help the crew.

“I remember every time I went down there, looking at their faces.

“You get an email and you get asked to get down to the ship and it just goes from there. I got aboard and met with the captain; the first thing was the complaint about wages. You rifle through the papers, the contracts, the bank records. The second part of it for me is the provisions, when was the last time they were brought aboard. I met with the cook and you could see things were getting low and water was a concern, so getting drinkable water aboard was the next thing. On provisions, with a crew of 51, you knew that at most they had a five-day supply. And then you have to sort of assess the rest of it and make your call.

“I made the decision to go to the press to get the word out, and ask the Red Cross to come down with water. They have other groups in the city that help keep people going, and they responded, churches and unions and so on. They brought food and cigarettes, it was incredible the outpouring of care.

“And you know, that’s all well and good for two or three weeks, but we were getting nowhere with the crew’s claim and the hardship was increasing as it started to drag on.

“There was an officer with a heart condition, and that was a bit of a panic. We managed to get the medications we needed. During that period, we also had to line up medical visits to the ship, get assurances that things were ok, figure out what we had to do for immediate needs. It’s a lot of people, and they have nothing. Somewhere in the middle of it, one of the female crew was raped while she was ashore. And that of course darkened the mood even further.

“And then after that first period, the situation comes clear. The feeling of abandonment creeps up on you. At first you think you can find a solution. But all those calls to the owners and the charterers and nobody is answering … one day you just know, holy fuck, we’re abandoned here.

“Eventually, when you see it’s going nowhere, we had the crew sign over the right to arrest the ship to get their wages settled, that’s where we stepped in with the legal part. We contacted the other creditors to see if they would step up to the plate, because the legal bills are expensive, but every creditor only cared about themselves. There was no care for the crew. They wanted those workers to take the lead and get the sale done (which finally happened), to pay the legal bills, but they didn’t do nothing to help. They took all of the money, $275,000. We went in with a plan to share the money, sell the ship while it had value, but none of them would return calls. Not one. We were especially disappointed with the St. John’s port authority, who we approached five months earlier with a plan to share the legal expenses. They wouldn’t even return our call. They left the crew to freeze and the vessel to sit cold for close to another year, through winter. The pipes burst and rats took over the ship and water filled the engine room, causing the value of the vessel to fall dramatically. It was negligence, what they did.

“So the suffering continued. We finally got most of the crew home; the government of Russia eventually stepped up with plane tickets, 14 or 15 at a time. They even flew home two or three Ukrainians. They all started going home about the first week of December, months after they’d arrived. Flights were so tight at that time of year, it was hard.

“Six or eight crew stayed behind to take care of the vessel. But there was still no pay for anyone. The last crew went home in January and February. The Russian government had put a time limit on how long they were going to provide flights. So for those guys, the cook and captain, a few engineers and a deck officer, the bosun, a messman, their ordeal through the St. John’s winter, that five or six month ordeal, they were short on food and water and smokes, in a cold, dark ship with nobody aboard.

“It was hell. And that’s even though Unifor stepped up to plate big time, provided transportation to the union office, phone bills so crew could call home to their families. They got them to the local Starbucks for free internet so they could Skype with family. Unifor gave them some private offices, got local grocery stores to help, took up a lot of slack for provisions. There was behind-the-scenes money for cigarettes.

“But it was hell.”

For some fabulous CBC video of Gerard talking in colourful detail about the Orlova and the difficulties  the crew faced, click here.

Two years after crew of the Orlova flew home, 11 seafarers were stranded in Argentia after their ship, loaded with a cargo of scrap metal, ran into bitter December winds and seas so high they swamped the engine room off Placentia Bay in Newfoundland.

The Egyptian owner of the MV Navi-Wind, with a sketchy flag and ownership history, immediately dropped from sight – unreachable even by the captain. Backwages built to $100,000 and crew were forced to survive without heat, their ship tied alongside in the depths of an Atlantic winter, dependent on the generosity of the community. Our inspector, Gerard Bradbury, arranged donations from a local dairy and bakery. Local disaster crews from the Red Cross provided further food, bottled water, blankets and winter coats.

Bradbury remembers the horror of that case too.

“The Navi-Wind was an embarrassing one for Transport Canada. They were sailing a man short, an AB short, and they lost all power. Each and every individual on that ship said it was the scariest moment they had ever spent at sea. That vessel was unfit for the sea, but the government let it go … There had been complaints and I had passed them on to port state control, but they sailed them out into a North Atlantic winter gale.

”Two days before sailing, I got a call from an oiler aboard who was concerned with safety in and around the engine room and with wages. Port state control, he said, had done an inspection and cleared the vessel to sail. I placed a call to PSC with the complaints and they proceeded to do a re-inspection — and again were satisfied with their previous findings that all was well.

The Navi-Wind proceeded to pick up its cargo of scrap metal bound for Turkey. Two days after departure, the captain hit a storm which to my understanding he thought he could handle. He was wrong. The engines died. They were drifting. The Navi-Wind was beaten around for two days before tugs could reach her. The ship had lost all power and was taking on serious water in the engine room. The crew had told me when I met with them shortly after they returned to port that they spent the better part of two days in that storm with no power, and were bailing out the engine room by forming a line with buckets.

“Also, when I boarded I was astonished to find no fresh water. There was only heat in the common areas of the mess and galley, no heat to the cabins and no clothing to protect against the weather, which during my visit was about minus 15 Celsius and snowing. The crew were badly beaten up, black and blue and freezing and still in shock from two days wallowing in a North Atlantic winter gale with no power, and water coming in.

“I had learned that they placed a detention on the vessel with 27 violations — and some of those 27 were very serious safety concerns — after it had already been cleared to go and they almost drowned those men.

“The first thing I did was to purchase fresh water. The crew were making tea with what looked like bunker fuel. Provisions were low and it was a two-hour drive in the snow back to St. Johns to get the word out to the media and to engage my union for some help.

 As soon as the word got out and I asked for help, the support was amazing. The Unifor local union  in St. Johns and its staff raised over $2,000 worth of food and fresh bottled water, milk and bread and made a $500 dollar donation to buy meats — all this  in less than four hours. The Red Cross and Salvation Army came through with blankets and warm clothing.

“With some of the crew’s needs met, I contacted the owner – who, to my surprise, was answering the phone. He said he had the cash to repatriate the crew but no money to pay the wages. The message was relayed to the crew, but they were not leaving without their money. The cargo had a value of over $1-million US and they wanted to protect that asset and were not going to leave without trying to get their wages out of it or the owner. 

I engaged a lawyer and notified the owner of the crew’s intent to arrest the vessel for wages and place a lien on the cargo. The owner asked for a four-day reprieve on the arrest to see if he could come up with the money for wages and flights home for the 10 crew who wanted to go home. The crew agreed and on the final day of the four-day agreement, the owner came up with the money. The crew were paid the $100,000 in back wages and were repatriated home over the Christmas period, starting on Christmas Eve — a very happy ending for the former crew of the Navi-Wind.

“I would like to mention the support of the great people of Newfoundland and their generosity to yet another group of seafarers who they did not know. They just heard the appeal that someone needed help, and they helped. I thank them for making my job easier.”

Another abandonment on the St. Lawrence Seaway left a dozen Turkish seafarers stranded this summer without food, water or paycheques.

The men were stuck aboard the MV Phoenix Sun outside Montreal for three months without pay. They had been flown in to board the rusting flag-of-convenience freighter in the spring. It had been stuck in port, temporarily registered in Panama, for more than a year in need of repairs, and crew were to sail it up river to Ontario to get the work done before it headed offshore to be dismantled. When their pay cheques stopped after two months, they stopped working — and the company stopped meeting any of its obligations. Crew called for the ITF to help and inspector Vince Giannopoulos started to organize support and a solution.  Abandoned in Sorel-Tracy, crew relied on credit cards, food from the community, and eventually a local fundraising drive that put together the $35,000 needed to fly them home. Air Transat even stepped up with free flights.

Last year, the German-owned cargo ship MV Fritz was forced to make an unscheduled stop on the St. Lawrence Seaway when crew, who had not been paid for three months and were living in deteriorating conditions, also went on strike. Six other ships in the owner’s fleet were suffering similar problems. When the owner walked away from the Liberian-flagged ship, crew were left without food or water – and eventually began hailing passing fishing boats, begging for gear so they could fish to feed themselves. Sanitation on board was appalling and water was running out. The local Romanian community rallied with food for crew, who were largely Romanian. A foreign investor eventually stepped forward to pay crew and get the ship moving, only to have it suffer engine problems that caused further headaches.

These stories are disgraceful. But just as troubling is the fact that they have been going on for years – and the details never seem to change.

Almost two decades before the Phoenix Sun sailed out of the St. Lawrence, 25 crew members aboard the MV Atlantis Two, a bulk carrier flagged in Cyprus, sailed into Vancouver to load a $4 million cargo of potash. When the ship was detained in November of 1997 for $400,000 worth of structural repairs, the owners sent the ship to the repair yard but disappeared when it came time to pay up. Fuel bills went unpaid too. By the time the crew stepped forward for help in claiming money they were owed, their backwages topped $200,000. Everyone aboard was discouraged and suffering, but when a small partial payment arrived, the crew insisted that before the allotment was divided among their own families, the elderly bosun be paid out in full first and flown home to India, where his wife lay dying. She had suffered two heart attacks and had no money for medical bills. The story of their humanity in the face of such adversity was so captivating that it made local headlines.

By mid-May of 1998, with the owner still refusing pleas from the ITF and the port to step up, with bills still unpaid and back wages at $273,000, fuel was running out and crew faced the prospect of no power, heat, hot water, lights, refrigeration or any way to cook food. A week into the crisis, with the ITF pressing the charterer to take legal action to seize the ship and have the crew paid, fuel arrived. But water was running out, meaning something as basic as the toilets would not work. And garbage had been piling up since February. Crew were left with no choice but to seize the ship themselves and sell it to recover their money.

By the end of May, court had approved a crew application to have the ship auctioned off, all bids opened July 30 and the winning buyer declared on July 31. The ITF and the crew were on their own in court – with crew footing the tens of thousands of dollars for the legal action themselves from the wages they would eventually recover from the sale. It was the same reprehensible behavior we would see years later, with the Orlova, as deep-pocketed parties who stood to recover monies from the sale allowed the workers who had been cheated and abused by an owner to shave money from their own meager family budgets to go to court and fix the mess.

None of this could be laid at the feet of the owner’s “bankruptcy”. As crew awaited the sale, the owner of the Atlantis Two was advanced a $3.7-million line of credit by ABN Amro, a Dutch commercial bank. The bank held an outstanding mortgage of between $14.7 and $18.3 million, and the line of credit was believed to have been aimed at resolving problems with the Atlantis Two and two other ships owned by New-York based Expedient Marine. The company was not bankrupt. As ITF Inspector Peter Lahay told reporters at the time, it was simply morally bankrupt.

None of the parties made the case easy for crew. At one point, for example, two firms claiming to own the $4-million cargo of fertilizer and the $111,000 in bunker fuel aboard the ship leapt into court too – raising brief fears the sale would be delayed.

Throughout the ordeal, crew behaved with quiet dignity. They insisted they wanted only their backwages and the flights home that were owed them, and they refused to solicit donations from area residents, who had been moved by their plight. Their refusal didn’t stop people, though. Local longshoremen and union seafarers passed the hat to raise almost $7,000 in cash. The local seafarer’s mission did what it could during the crew’s weekly trip ashore, and residents of Vancouver dropped off food and money. One family donated about $500, the considerable cost of sending 24 men to the movies for a night out to see the hottest film of the season: Titanic. Another group taped World Cup soccer games for them after an attempt to hook up a satellite signal aboard failed.

By late June, federal immigration and justice officials joined a court effort by the port to have the ship brought alongside, some of the crew flown home at Canada’s expense (meaning their wage clocks stopped running) and the cost repaid after the ship was sold. Eight crew were to remain aboard to maintain the vessel until the sale. News of the deal was met with great joy on board – and great grief when it fell apart briefly in early July. When the arrangement hit a final rocky patch, a dance was arranged at a local seafarer’s club to help ease the air of hoplessness that had descended. The ITF cabled each of the men $1,400, originally set aside as a hardship loan to be used by families at home, but now clearly needed by all. As the money arrived aboard the ship, tables were pushed aside and music from India filled the air – as one seafarer said, Hindi lyrics of “an old song, very sentimental, a prayer asking God, asking Mother, to hear our prayers. To take us home.”

In the end, by mid-August, after further legal delays, the ship was sold for $1.1 million, backwages of $300,000 were taken out of the pot and creditors were left to fight over the remains. On Aug. 21, the remaining crew flew home, many weeks ahead of the paycheques that would eventually catch up with them. At home, they would greet families who had been squirrelling money bit by bit from loansharks since Christmas. They would reunite with wives who had stripped themselves of jewelry and family heirlooms to raise cash. They would face families who had been evicted, daughters now without dowries whose weddings had been postponed.

Some of the men expected to lay low for a few months and then head back to sea by Christmastime. One, a 50-year-old oiler named Karuppan Urgramoorthy, said he had sailed for the last time. When he got back to Madras, he said, he would tell his family the news. And then he would walk his 24-year-old son, his eldest, directly into the manning agency that had hired Karuppan out. “My son will sail. Yes, my son will sail,” he said.

And the ship? It loaded a fresh crew of Filipinos and steered south for Guatemala to deliver potash, leaving behind it what was then the longest abandonment in Canadian history.

Tomorrow: Canada makes history with the Hydro Warrior, the world’s first detention under the MLC

 

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