In 2017 this ship was abandoned off the UAE by its owner with a skeleton crew stuck on board. Hungry and desperate, their ordeal has only just ended. Louise Callaghan hears their story.
Vinay Kumar had been living on a tanker in the Persian Gulf for several months by the time he conceded he might die. It was last summer and the air was so hot that it hurt to breathe. His back was in constant pain from sleeping on the deck: with no electricity the cabins had become sweltering and uninhabitable. Each day he ate nothing but small portions of rice and chapatis while eking out his one-bucket ration of fresh water.
His skin was covered in sores, his hair long and lank. He had lost 13kg and his cheekbones jutted out over his wispy beard. The other four crew members on the MT Iba looked the same: like survivors of a shipwreck. They had long stopped wearing proper clothes. Around noon the temperature would soar to about 45C and the iron deck would burn their feet.
None of them had been paid in months. For the ship's chief engineer, a Burmese sailor called Nay Win, it was much longer. Known as the Chief, he had joined the ship in July 2017, when it was moving oil across the oceans with a crew of 15. Built in 2008, the 5,000-ton tanker was 100 metres long and 18 metres wide, with the crew's quarters at the stern.
The Chief liked the work but had decided this would be his last contract. His wife and three children were at home in Yangon and he wanted to be with them. Then, six months after he joined the ship, his wages stopped. When he complained, the shipping company told him it was having cash-flow problems and that the money would come soon.
It didn't. The Iba was one of at least six ships in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to have been abandoned by Alco Shipping Services, a local company. In 2017 its owner — Syed Ijaz Hassan, a Pakistani national — was sent to prison in the UAE over significant debts. By last summer the Chief had been stuck on board the Iba for two and a half years with no pay, Kumar about six months. They were anchored in the Persian Gulf, near Dubai, almost 3.5km offshore and often at least 5km from any other vessel. "They treated us like animals," Kumar says. "Like they could just throw us in the sea."
The crew were going nowhere. Even if they had wanted to try to strike out for land, they had no captain and the sailors didn't know how to navigate the ship through channels and into harbours. None of the crew had the necessary visas to enter the UAE and they were afraid that if they made a fuss they might be blacklisted, unable to find other work. They also knew that if they left the ship they would never be paid. They thought their best bet was to stay put — that if they waited it out, the money would come. Stranded alone in the Gulf, the crew of the Iba had been abandoned in conditions that experts say meet the definition of modern slavery. And they were not the only ones.
It may be the age of cheap flights and one-click ordering, but most of the products we buy from abroad are still brought to us by sea. The world's 1.6 million seafarers move 90 per cent of international trade: from crude oil to cardigans and mangos. Each year 11 billion tonnes of goods are transported by ship: 1.5 tonnes per person. Maritime trade, according to the International Chamber of Commerce, was a US$14 trillion industry in 2019. Start your car. Order a pair of shoes online. Chances are at some point a seafarer was involved in making it happen. But these vital workers are increasingly being cast aside by unscrupulous shipowners and failed by the institutions tasked with protecting them. When a shipping company goes broke, sailors are being abandoned; left on a ship without their wages, treated like an annoying inconvenience aboard a stranded asset.
About 200 ships are listed as abandoned by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and the International Maritime Organisation (IMO), from the Gulf of Guinea to the port of Djibouti, from the Black Sea to Trinidad. But some experts estimate the number could be more than twice as high. According to governments, charities, maritime institutions and sailors, seafarer abandonments are increasing, driven by Covid-19 and global trade disruption. In 2020 the International Transport Workers' Federation (ITF) dealt with 171 cases of abandonment, compared with 79 in 2017.
According to more than a dozen interviews with sources across the shipping industry, the institutions meant to safeguard sailors do not work closely enough together or go far enough, leaving many abandoned seafarers to fall through the cracks. Some have already died. Hundreds more remain at risk. Among them were the crew of the Iba.
In his home village in northern India, amid the mountains of Himachal Pradesh, Kumar was seen as something of a renegade. At 26 he announced he was leaving home to seek his fortune at sea. Everyone thought he was mad. His father, a farmer who also ran a small shop, told him to stay at home.
Kumar didn't listen. In 2015 he left his wife and child and took a sleeper-class train to Mumbai, 1600km to the south, where he completed a 15-day course in basic marine safety. Soon afterwards he found a job on a ship heading for Malaysia.
"I love the sea. I don't know why. It just attracts me," he tells me when I meet him aboard the Iba in May to hear his story. "I wanted to go to new countries, but I didn't have any money. Without money, how could I see the world? So I joined, to travel here and there."
For four years Kumar crisscrossed the seas on an oil tanker, stopping at ports in Greece, Italy and Egypt. Though his training was basic, he learnt on the job. Yet he was taking a risk. In the shipping world there is a hierarchy of shipping companies, flags and insurers. At the top are big companies from rich countries, with highly trained sailors who are often from middle-class Asian or European backgrounds. At the bottom there are smaller companies, like the ones Kumar worked for, which may sail under a "flag of convenience". This is a common practice whereby owners register a ship in a country other than the one in which they are based — often one with fewer safety standards or income tax requirements. Seafarers on these smaller ships tend to come from poor backgrounds in countries such as the Philippines, Myanmar or, like Kumar, India. Many are low on skills and desperate for work, making them less likely to strike or complain when they are unfairly treated.
By the autumn of 2019 Kumar had transformed himself from a Himalayan farmer's son into a sailor. He had just finished one contract when he heard about a job on a ship anchored in the Persian Gulf.
From the moment he stepped on board he knew something was wrong. The ship was rusted, the paint flaking. There was only one other crew member, Nirmal Singh-Bora, a young sailor who was also from India. The ship had been abandoned and they had been tricked into going on board. Rather than transporting oil around the world, their job was to make sure the ship didn't sink. For that, it soon became clear, they would not be paid. Horrified, Kumar sent messages to anyone he could think of, asking for help. None came. The owner, when he could reach him, fobbed him off with baseless promises.
Each day brought more misery. Neither Kumar nor Singh-Bora could cook and their attempts at making chapatis on the gas stove produced more carbon than nourishment. One day when there was a rainstorm the engine room filled with water. Neither knew what to do.
"I was fully scared," Kumar says. "Really, really scared."
Then the food ran out. They broke open the emergency supplies in the life rafts and lived on biscuits and water. Once the refuelling boat stopped coming they had no electricity and nights were spent in the dark. Occasionally Kumar would turn on his phone to make a two-minute call to his wife and two children. If the battery ran out, there would be no way to call for help.
After four months Kumar and Singh-Bora heard they were being transferred on to a tanker — the Iba. They were overjoyed.
"I was thinking it was a new company. I didn't know what had happened here," Kumar says.
On December 23, 2019, he packed his clothes in a red suitcase and was taken on a small boat to the Iba, about 5km away. The ship looked like paradise: relatively new, though rusted, with other sailors on board. He climbed up the ladder, lugging the suitcase behind him. One of the crew members assured him there were no problems on this ship. The owner was rich, he said, and Kumar would get his wage of £545 ($1,075) every month.
Yet something was wrong. The ship was stationary. There wasn't enough food and fuel was rationed. The crew seemed depressed. Kumar searched online for the name of the company that owned the Iba. He discovered it had been blacklisted in India and had abandoned at least five other ships. It soon transpired that the crew hadn't been paid since early 2018. They had stuck with the ship because the brother of the imprisoned owner had taken over running Alco Shipping and kept assuring them their pay would come. But the money never arrived and the crew reported the ship as abandoned in January 2019. After months at sea Kumar was stranded once more.
Life on board the Iba settled into a harsh routine. With the air conditioning turned off to save fuel, the heat drove the crew from their cabins and on to the deck, where they slept, or tried to, on flattened cardboard boxes. The sun woke them early and they followed the shade throughout the day. They couldn't do much aside from maintaining the ship: cleaning, painting and testing the machinery.
"We were just talking about what we would do," Kumar tells me. "Making plans, listening to stories from the Chief when he told us who he had been asking for help. Nothing happened, but it was to make us strong, to keep fighting."
Kumar and Singh-Bora had been brought on board to replace two other sailors who had given up and left without their full wages. To get home those men had accepted payment of 25 per cent of their outstanding salaries in cash, with a further 25 per cent made out in cheques — which bounced when they banked them. Kumar and the others insisted they would settle for nothing but their full wages in cash. "We wanted to go home," he says. "What could we do? Because no one listened we didn't have a choice. We were working for free. [It was] like slavery."
About once a month supplies were delivered by boat by the Mission to Seafarers, a charity that supports maritime workers. The crew would receive enough fresh fruit, vegetables and chicken for a week, and rice and lentils that lasted longer. The UAE Federal Transport Authority and the Sharjah Ports Authority also sent food occasionally. Always unsure when the next delivery would come, Monchand Shaikh, the soft-spoken cook, rationed the food to a few handfuls of rice and a couple of chapatis each a day.
Live free or die hard
Shaikh, a very shy man from Calcutta, was in his mid-twenties. The Iba had been his first assignment on a ship and he missed his family. When he could charge his phone he took pictures of the sea and, if the internet was good enough, chatted with his friends. Sometimes he would fish, dangling a line over the side. On one day — one day only — he reeled in a catch. Then another. That night he cooked the two fish with spices and everyone went to sleep full.
To conserve fuel the crew turned on the electricity for just an hour and a half each evening. They would check the instruments and the engine, crank up the air conditioning and charge the Chief's laptop. Then, when the lights went out, they would sit on deck and watch Die Hard, dubbed into Hindi, until the battery died. They had all the Die Hard films, but the fourth, Live Free or Die Hard, was everyone's favourite. The Hindi translation was so woeful, it left Shaikh and Kumar helpless with laughter.
Once Die Hard was turned off there was nothing but darkness. Phone reception was patchy. If something happened, who could they call? Would anyone help them? The Chief tried everything to draw attention to their plight. Hunched over his laptop in the heat, he sent emails to anyone he could think of, trying to find a solution. Only a handful of people replied.
Under the piercing sun, life began to take on a surreal quality. Then the watermelons came. First they spotted one, bobbing past them in the sea, slick and green. The men rushed to the side to see more drifting across the water. The Chief thought they must have fallen off a ship going to Iran. Kumar and Shaikh, delirious, threw over a net and scooped them up as they passed. They split them open and ate them, salty and cold, straight from the sea.
After months at anchor tensions began to rise. Kumar thought the crew should stick together and refuse to leave the ship until all their wages had been paid. Most of the others agreed. But one of the men stuck by the shipping company, talking to the management on the phone and, Kumar suspected, informing on the crew. He didn't sit with them at mealtimes and sometimes refused to take orders. "This was a big problem for our case," Kumar says. "If we made a plan it never would have worked, because we had a spy on board. The crew had no unity. We were not all supporting each other to solve this problem."
They were in a dire predicament: if they stayed they suffered but retained a chance of getting their wages. If they went home Kumar knew they would relinquish all hope of getting paid.
When a ship is abandoned, the responsibilities of the shipowner, including repatriation, payment of wages and provision of fair working conditions for the crew, lies with the flag state — the country where the ship is registered. Should the flag state fail in its responsibilities, the port state — the jurisdiction where the ship is anchored — should also step in, as should the crew's home countries.
Regulations established by the IMO and ILO are supposed to enshrine these processes in law and make them run smoothly. The 2006 Maritime Labour Convention (MLC) created a financial security system designed to kick in when seafarers are abandoned, ensuring they are paid for up to four months and repatriated quickly. But the UAE, along with other Gulf states, are not signatories of the MLC. Two maritime legal experts based in Dubai say the states will not sign as it allows workers to organise in unions, which are illegal in much of the Gulf.
For the crew on the Iba, and for many others, the system does not work. As Alco Shipping plunged into debt the protective layers fell away. The Iba lost its flag — it was allegedly deregistered after dues weren't paid — and its insurance lapsed. Panama eventually offered to pay for the crew's repatriation. However, the sailors refused to leave without their wages. Their families were dependent on the money.
In the end a storm changed everything. As the sun set on January 20 this year, wind speeds rose and waves lashed the ship. Two weeks earlier the starboard anchor chain had broken. At 10pm the remaining port anchor chain broke and the ship began to roll heavily from side to side. Terrified, the crew hung on. Kumar scrambled down to the engine room. The Chief stayed on the bridge, radioing Sharjah port for help. Boiling with adrenaline, Kumar started the engine.
"I was running here and there, checking the air pressure, everything," he says. "All the control in the bridge depends on this."
Two attempts to provide a towboat failed, the first for lack of towrope, the second because of the rough weather. "They told us we should drive the ship inside the port," Kumar says. "But we can't. We don't have a captain — how could we control it? Maybe on the open sea we could. But not here."
By 3am hope of rescue had faded. Exhausted, Kumar called up to the Chief to take over from him at the engine. Then, with a jolt, they stopped. The crew ran up to the deck and in the darkness they saw a beach just a few metres ahead. The Iba had run aground, touching land for the first time in almost three years.
The morning after the storm Kumar walked over to the railing. He was dumbfounded by what he saw. On the beach below were crowds of bikini-clad holidaymakers, sunbathing and splashing in the sea. A fair number were staring at him.
Within hours the plight of the Iba became a local sensation. Tourists flocked to the beach at Umm al-Quwain to see the rusty hulk. Vendors did a brisk trade in coffee and juice. Bemused, Kumar and Shaikh climbed down a ladder and jumped into the surf, ostensibly to take a look at the propeller, but really to investigate the strange world they had run into.
As they dropped into the water, their feet touched land for the first time in 18 and 26 months respectively. It swayed underneath them. "It's a different feeling, having your foot in the sand for the first time in so long," Kumar says. "You can't explain it. We'd been thinking that the whole world was water."
After a few days, whenever there were no police around, they began stepping on to the beach, chatting to the holidaymakers. Without visas they were afraid to go further than the water's edge. The Chief remained on board, still refusing to leave the ship. But after years of being ignored, everything began to change.
Before it had been easy for the authorities, flag state and shipping company to forget about the Iba. The crew had been five sailors at sea, out of sight and mind. Now they were close enough for tourists to walk up and touch the ship's hull at low tide. A moribund cause gathered momentum. Though rusted and unkempt, the ship was still worth about US$1 million in parts. With the publicity came a buyer: Fadi Akrah of Shark Power Marine Services, based in the UAE. In the early afternoon of February 10, two weeks after the storm, Akrah stood waiting at the water's edge along with Andrew Bowerman of the Mission to Seafarers charity and Syed Waqar Hassan, brother of the imprisoned boss of Alco Shipping, owner of the Iba.
After weeks of negotiation Akrah had agreed to pay the sailors about 80 per cent of their wages. As the final negotiations began, none of the crew could quite believe it was happening. Kumar and the Chief both cried. At one point it had looked as though the Chief would take a swing at Waqar. Eventually Akrah signed a cheque for US$165,000 ($237,000) on the bonnet of Bowerman's car. Since none of the sailors would accept anything but cash, they agreed that Bowerman should bank it. Once it cleared, the crew would sign the agreement and leave the ship.
"The Iba issue has been resolved and all the crew have been repatriated to their home destinations," Waqar tells me when I request an interview. "The vessel is no more with us. It's already sold." He did not reply to a list of detailed questions.
In today's shipping industry seafarers are falling through the cracks: failed by the institutions and regulations that are supposed to protect them. This disproportionately affects sailors from poor countries and those who work for smaller shipping companies. International organisations such as the IMO do not have a blacklist of irresponsible owners or management companies, so it is up to individual port and flag states to find and sanction them. Bad actors can move their business elsewhere.
Part of the problem is that shipping is a complex international jigsaw puzzle. A vessel abandoned in Dubai could be owned by someone in London, managed by a company in Singapore, insured in America, subcontracted to a German and flying a Marshall Islands flag while having 20 nationalities working on board. When owners and flag and port states don't respect global laws and regulations, there is often little accountability.
Mohamed Arrachedi, a co-ordinator with the ITF union, says flag states should take responsibility for owners who abandon their crews. Both port and flag states, he says, have been guilty of ignoring the plight of seafarers, leaving it to charities or unions to feed them. One Dubai-based lawyer who has worked on many abandonment cases says it can take two or three years for a crew abandoned in the UAE to have their wages paid through the courts. Abandonment requires international bodies such as the IMO to find solutions, the lawyer says.
UAE officials claim legislation will soon be introduced to help seafarers. Captain Abdulla al-Hayyas, director of maritime transport affairs for the UAE, says authorities had been in constant contact with the sailors on the Iba and brought them provisions: "We initiated legal action against the owner, however due to the lack of legislation in such cases the case took a long time, which has encouraged us to fill the legislation gap." Mistreatment of seafarers, he says, would be met with zero tolerance.
Crew from poor backgrounds, however, are often willing to take work on poorly run ships despite the risks. "They take a contract with a company they know might be vulnerable, and sometimes that vulnerability proves to be the case," Bowerman says. "And then everybody's in trouble."
When unscrupulous management companies sign up seafarers to abandoned ships under false pretences, the conditions can fit the definition of modern slavery. "In several cases it's a kind of trafficking," says Jan de Boer, a senior legal officer at the IMO. "You want to live free but are actually unable to return to your home country. That is a kind of slavery."
I climbed aboard the Iba one afternoon in May. The ship had been towed off the beach a few weeks earlier and left briefly out at sea before being taken to the docks at Dubai Maritime City. The men were still on board waiting for their visas and tickets to leave the UAE. After months of deprivation they now had electricity, food and internet access. Kumar's hollow cheeks had filled out. Shaikh was cooking anything other than rice. They had been paid most of their outstanding wages. For Kumar that was about £7,600 ($15,000) for more than two years of suffering, sickness, fear and boredom, stuck at sea without his family.
The voyage had cost Kumar health, time and money. It also briefly lost him his mind. During the worst of the abandonment, half-starved in the heat, he had managed to keep his spirits up. But in December, when conditions improved, the strain caught up with him. One day he felt his whole left side go limp. His heart pounded and the faces of his children flashed in front of him. He remembered the pain, the hunger; everything he had tried to ignore.
"I never want to think about that again," he said. "I was so afraid, I thought I was going to die. My heartbeat was so high."
As the sun began to set Kumar took me to the top deck. To the south Dubai rose like a mirage, the Burj Khalifa glinting in the sun. To the north lay the sea. Kumar looked only towards the shore. After six years at sea, he was going home to the mountains.
Written by: Louise Callaghan
© The Times of London