CONSTANTA, Romania—An engineer stuck on a cargo ship abandoned in a Black Sea port has waited four years to get paid and go home.
Off the coast of Somalia, a crew awaiting pay languishes on a pirate-trawled stretch of the Indian Ocean while their ship slowly takes on water. Another 14 seafarers, stuck on a cargo ship off the coast of Iran, have run out of food and fuel. Some contemplated suicide.
“We cannot survive here,” said an engineer aboard the MV Aizdihar, abandoned off the Iranian port city of Bandar Abbas. “Please help us.” He spoke via video earlier this year, his face drawn.
The $14 trillion shipping industry, responsible for 90% of world trade, has left in its wake what appears to be a record number of cargo-ship castaways. Abandonment cases are counted when shipowners fail to pay crews two or more months in wages or don’t cover the cost to send crew members home, according to the International Maritime Organization, a United Nations agency.
Last year, the number of such cases reported to the agency more than doubled to 85 from 40 in 2019. This year is on track to be worse.
More than 1,000 seafarers are currently abandoned on container ships and bulk carriers, according to estimates by the International Transport Workers’ Federation, a labor union. The true toll is likely higher because many crew members are reluctant to speak out for fear of being blacklisted, according to interviews with seafarers on abandoned vessels, shipowners, agents, maritime organizations and union officials.
the union’s Middle East coordinator, said he wakes up to dozens of WhatsApp messages from distraught sailors around the world: “It’s a global humanitarian crisis.”
In the United Arab Emirates, one shipping company abandoned seven container ships in recent months, leaving behind dozens of crew members, each owed a year’s wages. A five-man crew marooned next to a Dubai tourist resort, living off little more than rice for 10 months, recently ended a four-year ordeal.
Last year, a mostly Egyptian crew was abandoned in Sudan. The ship was then sold and manned by a mostly Sudanese crew who also were abandoned in Egypt. Three of them are still aboard, floating off the Suez Canal in their ninth month without pay.
The surge in cases prompted three of the world’s largest seafaring nations—China, Indonesia and the Philippines—to propose in August the establishment of a seafarers’ mutual emergency fund to help abandoned crews.
Trade disruptions caused by the pandemic and the nature of the competitive, lightly regulated global shipping industry has helped drive the increase in the number of stranded sailors.
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