x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Freedom for shipmates stuck aboard for a year

The pair have flown home after spending more than a year in bureaucratic limbo aboard their vessel, Al Manara 2, in an Ajman port.

Nelson Aguilar, left, and Juma Mohammed Mkumba are free men and will now go home after disembarking from the Al Manara 2.
Nelson Aguilar, left, and Juma Mohammed Mkumba are free men and will now go home after disembarking from the Al Manara 2.

DUBAI // Two foreign sailors forced to live aboard a ship in Ajman's port for more than a year without pay have finally flown home. 

Juma Mohammed Mkumba, 46, from Tanzania, and his Filipino colleague Nelson Aguilar, 49, have also been told they could be paid in full in the next year.

The two men had been trapped in administrative limbo on board the Al Manara 2 since August last year, unable to re-enter the UAE because of restrictions on their visas. They were the last remaining members of the six-man crew of the UAE-registered cargo supply vessel, the others having left last year. They have been dependent first on the agent in charge of the ship, then on the Mission to Seafarers charity for food, water and contact with the outside world.

"Today I am very happy because I am free," Mr Mkumba said before he flew home from Dubai International Airport on Wednesday evening. "If you are staying on the ship, without anything, it is like a jail. But today I feel like I can do anything I want. It is like being released from prison, when you see the sun for the first time. My heart is open and I am free." The claim for unpaid wages against the Dubai-based company Elite Way Marine Services will be attached to a parallel claim by Ajman Port. Omar al Manzalawi, the lawyer handling the case, said it would be filed in Ajman on Sunday.

Mr Mkumba is owed a year's salary of Dh29,000 and Mr Aguilar a little over Dh80,000. The money will come from the sale of the ship, which has been valued by port auditors at Dh6.6 million. The wages will be sent to the men in their home countries once the case is settled. Mr Aguilar said that he hoped to marry and set up a business once he receives his dues. "I'm still young," he said with a wry grin.

The sailors' compensation claim has been organised mostly by the Mission, which has co-ordinated with the port and the shipping agent on the legal case. Its representatives visited the sailors each week to provide food, water and mobile phone credits for them to keep in touch with their families. The charity spent about Dh500,000 last year on basic necessities for sailors, as well as air fares and occasional payments of missed salaries for seafarers in need. It is currently providing aid to 50 sailors in five ships in different emirates, said Stephen Miller, an Anglican priest who heads the charity's UAE chapter.

"It's not like a housemaid or an office worker, who is constantly reminding their employer that they are not being paid," he said. "Seafarers are isolated behind a port gate. They are the world's invisible workers." An agent for the Dubai Chamber of Commerce confirmed that Elite Way was registered on its books. The company's phone was no longer in service. The shipping agent Al Zumorud Shipping also said that it is owed money by Elite Way.

A close relative of an Elite Way executive said he had not seen him in months. "I have no idea where he is or even if he is still in the country," the family member said. 

newsdesk@thenational.ae