Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 25 August 2019

Abandoned seafarers reach settlement that will allow them to return home

The three remaining crew members on the MZ Azraqmoiah tanker reach a pay agreement with employers and can be repatriated after more than two years at sea

Captain Ayyappan Swaminathan of the MZ Azraqmoiah has been at sea for almost three years because of a financial dispute with his employer. He is one of three crew left on board the vessel to have negotiated a deal that will see them return home. Courtesy: A. Swaminathan.
Captain Ayyappan Swaminathan of the MZ Azraqmoiah has been at sea for almost three years because of a financial dispute with his employer. He is one of three crew left on board the vessel to have negotiated a deal that will see them return home. Courtesy: A. Swaminathan.

The final three crew on board the MZ Azraqmoiah tanker, who have been stranded off the coast of Ajman for more than two years, have reached a settlement over pay that will allow them to return home to their families.

The ship had been delivering building materials from Iraq to the UAE in 2017 when necessary repair work led to financial difficulties for Elite Way Marine Services, the company who operates the UAE flagged vessel.

It was taken out to sea and anchored six nautical miles off Ajman port, with the men unable to leave the ship without a UAE entry visa. It is also illegal under UAE law to leave an unmanned ship at sea and the shipping company refused to replace them.

The men are owed 18-months of salary as their wages stopped a few months after the ship was abandoned. Six weeks ago, 7 of the 10 stranded sailors accepted 50 per cent of the money they were owed so they could leave rather than face another stifling summer on board in cramped living conditions.

The case has attracted global attention, especially from newspapers in India and the UK, with the men being kept in what one charity described as "traumatising" conditions.

Many of the men have missed significant life events, such as births, deaths and marriages, and have racked up debts at home due to being away for such a long period of time and being unable to send money to their families.

Captain Ayyappan Swaminathan, chief officer Rajib Ali, who are both from India, and the ship’s cook, Ibrahim Lazim Adam from Sudan, remained on board when the others left, holding out for all of what they are owed.

A final cash settlement has now been agreed that should allow the men to begin the journey home to their families. A boat delivered the salaries in cash on Wednesday morning, but Captain Ayyappan now awaits further instruction from Dubai Courts on the cases logged against his vessel so it can be towed into port at Maritime City.

Once that happens, he can return home to Kumbakonam, in southern India, to be with his wife Menaka, and their daughter Aniha, 6.

The men did not want to disclose what percentage of the owed wages they received.

“This salary is very important for my family and my future. I need it to restart my life. I am fighting for my rights, and those of my crew," said Captain Ayyappan, 42, who is owed about $77,000 (Dh283,000).

“Once it has been delivered, we hope to be towed into the port.”

Other vessels belonging to the same company are in a similar situation. Of the seven ships operated by Elite Way Marine Services, three remain at sea – the MZ Azraqmoiah, the Tamim Aldar, which has four stranded crew, and the Al Nader, with five.

Most of the three ships' crew have left their posts and been repatriated.

There have been so many false dawns, so many false promises

Reverend Andy Bowerman, Mission to Seafarers

Two of the men on board the MZ Azraqmoiah are fasting for Ramadan, leaving Captain Ayyappan to complete daily duties alone, updating the navigation log, checking batteries and general maintenance of the generators.

“We don’t have much food left," he said.

“There is a cook and a first officer, they can’t help me when they are fasting so I am on my own. This vessel would usually have a crew of 16, so it is not easy.

“It has been a tough negotiation, and we offer huge thanks to the UAE's Federal Transport Authority, the Indian Embassy and Mission to Seafarers for this progress.”

Mission to Seafarers in Dubai, one of the charities offering food and water to the vessels, last visited the tanker 10 days ago to deliver supplies from its own ship, The Flying Angel.

Fresh vegetable and chicken were among the delivery, a welcome change from the rice and dhal the men have been living off for months.

“We wanted to provide foods they could have for a decent iftar and suhoor,” said Andy Bowerman, chaplain for the mission..

“On my last visit, Captain Ayyappan was showing the first signs of weakening. He was beginning to get desperate as there have been so many false dawns, so many false promises.

“Nothing materialised, but he was determined to hold out for as much as possible.

“Other crew members were unable to take it any more and have left with 50 or 60 per cent of their salaries.

“This is at least the second time this company has been involved in unpaid salaries, so we hope they are not allowed to operate here in future.”

Abandonment at sea is a common occurrence, with merchant navy sailors the first to lose out when shipping operators hit financial problems or enter bureaucratic disputes.

In a separate incident, 87 Indian sailors are facing similar problems after five ships were detained in the Singapore Straits for illegally anchoring in Indonesian waters. They have been waiting since February to find a resolution to their predicament.

Updated: May 24, 2019 10:59 AM

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