Many of the boats carrying supplies and crew between oil tankers and the shore sit idle as oil prices remain low. Sailors are often unpaid for months. But the Rev Dr Paul Burt, of the Mission to Seafarers, is there to help.
Rev Burt, a bridge over troubled waters
The Rev Dr Paul Burt steps on to a medium-sized ship, over a precarious, narrow wooden bridge. He makes his way inside. The lapping of water against the dock is soon overpowered by the whirring drone of machinery.
Inside sits a crew of mixed origin, the most vocal being the ship’s Filipino second officer. He called Rev Burt, the regional director of the Mission to Seafarers, earlier that day to ask for help.
“So,” says Rev Burt, “you haven’t been paid? How many months?” The second officer’s problems have lasted only a few months – he joined in June. However, while his salary is Dh3,670 a month, the past few months he has only occasionally been paid – Dh500 or Dh1,000.
“We have gone into the office many times asking for our salary and the finance manager always tells us to come back tomorrow, or next week.”
His subordinates have had an even tougher time. One of them says he has not been paid for 17 months.
Since the second officer joined, the ship has been on standby. Ordinarily, it would function as a transport vessel – in the UAE, this usually means taking supplies, and occasionally crew, between oil tankers and the shore.
However, the recent downturn in oil prices has meant more crude oil is being stored, rather than refined or sold, according to Rev Burt – meaning the large tankers used to transport crude oil are also on standby. By some estimates, as many as 100 are moored off the coast of Fujairah, some at anchor for many months.
The company that runs this particular vessel ring-fences its individual ships and cannot take money from more profitable vessels’ accounts to pay its standby crews.
Rev Burt explains the company’s plight: “I know this company has some problems with cash flow; that is to say, the clients that they’re providing the ships for are not paying them – only after a long delay.”
The silver lining in this case is that Rev Burt is familiar with this particular company, and knows they do eventually pay. However, he is quick to manage expectations.
“I can’t make them pay. I can’t magic the money,” he says, snapping his fingers. “All I can do is find out when they think this vessel is going to do some work. But it might not be in the near future, it’s a tough situation now. A lot of offshore companies have less work than before, because the oil companies are not doing so much work. The oil prices are coming down, so some operations are not economical anymore.”
“Sir, will this company be angry with us?” asks the second officer.
“Don’t worry, they will not be angry because they know me. They know that I understand their problem, and I understand your problem,” he says, assuring the crew before making his way off the vessel.
He drives to the company’s office in a different part of Sharjah’s Hamriya port to be received warmly with offers of tea or coffee.
He and a manager openly discuss the company’s financial problems, which reflect those of the overall market – with charterers from across the region making late payments because of falling oil prices.
The company representative acknowledges the crew’s right to pursue their salary, but assures Rev Burt he is doing his best to pay them whenever money comes in.
He also raises an issue, one that is apparently widespread among seafarers in the Gulf – crew siphoning off diesel and selling it at reduced rates.
Rev Burt says: “If you have concerns about a particular group, or a particular ship, I’m more than happy to speak to them.”
He considers education to be a crucial part of his role, especially when it comes to teaching that illegal activity is not only immoral, but that the tiny profits are not worth the severe consequences.
Two weeks later, Rev Burt returns to the troubled vessel, this time with a car full of carefully gift-wrapped baskets of food, donated by a local school.
He is led upstairs to the helm, to the second officer, who says: “Just last week two Ukranian guys arrived from the other ships. They will sign off.” His ship used to have a Ukranian captain. Captains usually do not wait around, as they know there is a huge demand for their services worldwide.
After a brief conversation, Rev Burt asks for a pair of hands to help him bring in the food.
He took nine of his colleagues to meet the company last week. “They have four or five ships on standby and that’s just how the business is at the moment.” He says that the same is true for all the offshore companies at Sharjah Hamriya, Ajman and Dubai.
Rev Burt says the shipping world is a “very good litmus test for global trade, and for expectations about global trade”.
“They have to look ahead 12 to 18 months, because ordering and then building a new ship takes that length of time.”
Things, he says, will improve at some point and companies do not want to find themselves unable to capitalise on the improving market. This is also why offshore companies have ships on standby – they do not want their ships to sit idle, gathering rust.
Small companies with only a handful of ships might decide it is not worth it and try to find buyers for their ships.
“The crew are on board the ship because the company hasn’t got the money to pay them. They know that if they leave the ship, there’s no chance of them getting any money.”
The owner has to find some way to pay off their debts and sometimes the only option is to sell the ship for scrap. “At least here in the UAE, convention is that the crew get paid first from any proceeds.”
Even though the Maritime Labour Convention holds weight internationally, smaller companies will often hire cheaper, unqualified crews – some of them without contracts.
The man who has not been paid for 17 months mentions that his seaman’s book is about to expire. This is a problem. If it was issued in the Philippines, it must be renewed there.
Rev Burt says this is not something he can help with and the man drops his head into his hands.
“But I cannot wait longer, sir, maybe I want to go,” says the seaman
“That’s right. So, that’s a decision that only you can take. The only thing I’m saying to all you guys is your company does usually settle its debts – they do pay.
“I am seeing ships, small ships in a small fleet, with a bad owner, who haven’t been paid for nine, sometimes 12 months, and they will never get their money.”
After wishing them well, he returns to his car and goes for a routine patrol of the port.
“Despair,” he says, then pauses, “is an emotion we see a lot.” Fortunately, empathy and charity is part of the “fraternity of the sea”.
“When it comes to this port and to Ajman, it’s simply a fact that if you spend long enough here, you will find another case of a ship that’s in bad condition – a crew who are not being looked after.”
He pulls up next to a boat with just one man on it, mopping up and pouring a bucket of dirty water overboard.
“Hello, I’m from the Mission to Seafarers – the Flying Angel,” he says, smiling.
“Oh yes sir,” says the man, an Indian watchkeeper on a vessel owned by a Norwegian company. He has been on board for 15 months and has not been paid for two months.
“The agent said this vessel has been sold. He said he is just preparing all the documents and, maybe this month, it will go to Norway,” he says.
It is his first job as a seafarer. Although he does have a contract, he does not have a copy.
“That’s against the law,” says Rev Burt. Unfortunately, this is common.
The watchman says he told the agent his mother was ill and he had to leave, but was informed he could not sign off until he was replaced.
Rev Burt takes down the contact details and names for the ship’s owner, and local agent, before heading off.
“The bright spot in that story is it’s a Norwegian owner,” says Rev Burt, “which means they’re a biggish company, presumably.
“He’s been paid for 13 out of 15 months, so that’s not too bad, but he’s obviously getting a little bit nervous now.
“While it’s here doing nothing, then it has to have a watchkeeper. But, once it goes, then his job goes with it – and possibly the chance of his pending salary as well.”
The man’s reference to family problems is also not unusual. While contracts ensure companies pay for repatriation, if a seafarer wants to terminate his contract early, they have to pay for all the costs associated – not just the cost of them returning home, but also for the replacement crew coming on board.
However, it is the company’s responsibility to provide medical care and allow crew to leave the ship for medical treatment, or if a personal tragedy arises.
“So, the favourite trick of the seafarer who has decided, for whatever reason, that he doesn’t want to be on that ship any more is that something’s happened at home which means he has to go back – his father has suddenly become critically ill. Because this is the favourite ploy, almost by definition most of those cases are not genuine.
“The difficulty of course is where they are genuine.
“What happens is the agent will then require a signed doctor’s certificate from the hospital in question to say this person does exist, they are in hospital, and so on. Of course, in Mumbai even those things can be fraudulently produced.”