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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 11 December 2018

New rules will stop the travesty of ship owners abandoning their crews

The regulations aim to protect seamen who find themselves stranded without food or pay, writes Peter Hellyer

Workers from the Mission to Seafarers provide food, water and clothing to abandoned vessels along the coastline of the UAE / courtesy of Dr Paul Burt
Workers from the Mission to Seafarers provide food, water and clothing to abandoned vessels along the coastline of the UAE / courtesy of Dr Paul Burt

The phrase "out of sight, out of mind" is generally used to refer to problems which aren’t in the forefront of people’s minds and which, therefore, can easily be forgotten. One such problem has long plagued the UAE although it is often, in literal terms, not actually out of sight: the plight of sailors on ships anchored offshore, which have been abandoned by their owners or operators.

From time to time, such cases attract heartwrenching media coverage. One was that of a young Indian captain who lived for a year alone on an abandoned tanker five miles off the coast of Sharjah, with no electricity. He survived on the generosity of crews of passing ships and, to conserve supplies, he ate only once every three days.

Another case involved a ship whose crew, stranded on a vessel unable to move, with unsafe lifeboats and seawater allegedly leaking into the engine room, had not received salaries for more than two years.

Last year, according to one estimate, there were over 20 ships with more than 100 seamen, abandoned off the coast of the Emirates. From the shore, the ships can be seen in the distance but the suffering of those on board is largely out-of-mind.

Welcome assistance to stranded mariners is provided by the diplomatic missions concerned as well as by charities, such as the Dubai and Fujairah branches of the UK-based Mission to Seafarers charity, whose work received welcome attention in The National last week.

While these can alleviate the suffering of the sailors, they cannot, of course, tackle the underlying problem caused by unscrupulous ship owners and operators, who simply abandon vessels and their crews.

It’s encouraging, therefore, to note that our Federal Authority for Land and Maritime Transport (FTA) is, without great fanfare, taking a series of steps to try to tackle the issue.

One of these came into effect in February, a ruling that ship owners bringing vessels into UAE waters, as well as all UAE-flagged vessels, must have appropriate insurance to cover their financial liabilities towards their crews.

The ruling covers all vessels weighing more than 200 tonnes. Local shipping agents handling such vessels must now satisfy themselves that the owners and operators have such insurance, otherwise the agents themselves will be held responsible for liabilities towards the crews if the ships are abandoned.

An FTA circular states that the insurance must cover liabilities for repatriation of crew, supply of food, accommodation and medical care and up to four months’ wages in the event of abandonment as well as payments for death or long-term disability as a result of work-related injuries.

Any ship without the appropriate cover is no longer allowed to anchor in UAE waters or call at UAE ports.

Evidence of a determination to tighten up on what is, in real terms, a scandal, albeit not one that arises from within the UAE itself, came last year when the FTA banned all ships operated by an Indian shipping company from entering UAE waters after several cases in which ships were abandoned.

A blanket ban has also been imposed on all vessels flying the Micronesian flag entering UAE waters, following reports of the illegal registration of vessels and issuing of illegal seamen’s certificates.

Earlier this month, the FTA signed a memorandum of understanding with the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) on collaborating to protect the rights of all seafarers in UAE waters.

The agreement is the first of its kind between a government authority and the ITF, a group with affiliates in 140 countries, representing about 19.7 million workers.

Under the terms of the memorandum, the FTA and the ITF will now work together on cases of ship abandonment as well as on matters related to various legal issues covered under the 2006 Maritime Labour Convention.

According to the FTA chairman, Dr Abdullah Belhaif Al Nuaimi, who is also the UAE's Minister of Infrastructure Development, the agreement “allows us to consult, cooperate and coordinate jointly and continuously to find legal solutions regarding the abandonment of seafarers aboard ships by ship owners and operators and to work together to combat and prevent the occurrence of this phenomenon in the future.”

Over the last few decades, the UAE has achieved considerable success in the development of its maritime and shipping industry. Its major ports, such as Jebel Ali, Port Rashid, Khalifa Port and Khor Fakkan, have become key trans-shipment hubs while Fujairah is the second largest port in the world for bunkering, supplying fuel to the world’s shipping.

One downside of that success has been the way in which rogue ship owners from other parts of the world simply dump ships and crews in our waters.

It’s good to see that, through the FTA, the UAE is moving, in association with the shipping industry worldwide, to put an end to this practice and to ensure that the rights of mariners are acknowledged and protected.

Peter Hellyer is a consultant specialising in the UAE’s history and culture