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FEATURE: Abandoned Palmali crew are caught in an inhumane trap - Turkey can free them

18 Feb 2021

The humanitarian effort to feed, repatriate and fight for the seafarers’ outstanding wages has been spearheaded by the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) and its inspectors.

This week four seafarers on one ship owned by Mübariz Mansimov Gurbanoğlu’s Palmali shipping company, the Captain Nagdaliyev (IMO 9575307), were freed by Lebanese authorities after the crew took to a hunger strike in an effort to go home. The tanker was arrested in the port of Beirut on May 12, 2020 and when its crew were abandoned without food, fuel and wages for more than 10 months.

ITF Arab World and Iran network coordinator, Mohamed Arrachedi, said the Palmali abandonment cases were some of the worst he had seen. Working alongside Maltese ITF Inspector Paul Falzon and Italy-based Inspector Livia Martini, the ITF Inspectorate has arranged for live saving provisions for crew aboard Palmali’s former ships to keep the seafarers alive.

Turks have denied freedom for months, seafarers starved in darkness
In Istanbul, six ships owned by Palmali were abandoned at the port as the company went broke. Crews there were trapped on vessels for more than nine months as Turkish authorities refused to allow them to leave.

“It is grim,” said Steve Trowsdale, ITF’s Inspectorate Coordinator whose team have been working tirelessly to get the seafarers home. “These people are absolutely desperate. They have been low on food and water. Some ships had so little fuel that they had to live in blackout with no lighting.”

The Lerik (IMO 9575319) is one of the ships abandoned at Istanbul since May last year. The 10-strong crew joined had not been paid in the almost two years since they joined the ship, in 2019. The Lerik’s crew ran out of food for a period in early 2020 and were without power or lighting during parts of their ordeal.

Gurbanoğlu’s jailing had complicated matters, as did regular changes in the P&I (insurance) responsibilities related to the ships.

The billionaire is accused by Turkish authorities of colluding with the leaders of a failed 2016 coup d'état against President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s regime.

“The issue of crew maintenance has been accentuated by the fact that during 2020, the P&I responsibility changed three times, with each one passing the buck onto each other, and in those instances in which a P&I intervened, they decided not to accept to maintain the crew,” said Trowsdale.

When there is a lack of responsibility taken by insurers and flag states, it often falls to port states – where the ships are docked to take action.

“Yes, there are significant costs involved,” said Trowsdale on Turkey’s responsibility to free and repatriate the crews. “The ships have to be fuelled and maintained in these ports. Watch keepers need to be found. Turkish authorities may have been hesitant to pay for the maintenance of ships owned by someone they regard as a ‘traitor’: but seafarer welfare has to be above politics.”

“Governments have a legal and moral responsibility to preserve the life and health of those aboard ships owned by their people, flagged to their registries, or docked in their ports. That’s the price of having an international shipping system. They can’t pick and choose when to respect seafarers’ rights,” he said.

Working on the case, ITF Inspector Paul Falzon said nine months of languishing on the ships were taking their toll on the seafarers.

“They are trapped on these ships. Their health and welfare is being impacted. They have a right to their freedom. Turkish authorities are denying them their freedom – this cannot go on,” said Falzon.

Italy’s more humanitarian approach
In contrast to refusals by Turkish authorities to support crews in their harbours with food, fuel and repatriation; seafarers have been treated considerably better on Palmali ships stranded in Italian ports.

For example, the Gobustan (IMO 9575321) was abandoned in Ravenna when Palmali collapsed. From July 2020 the crew were stranded for four months.

The ITF negotiated with the port, the insurers and other parties, and the crew of 13 were able to travel home at the end of September. The Gobustan’s crew gave their proxies to ITF lawyers to fight for unpaid salaries from the eventual sale of the ship. While the battle for wages continues, the ITF expects the seafarers to receive at least a share of their outstanding wages in due course, said Trowsdale.

“In the meantime, they have been home and able to get on with their lives. We want that for all the seafarers affected by Palmali’s collapse from Day One. They are entitled to their freedom,” he said.

Twelve seafarers still remain on vessels abandoned at the Port of Oristano, with nine seafarers on the Khosrov Bey and three on the General Shikhlinsky, they continue to receive support from ITF Inspector Livia Martini.

$3.2 million owed to Palmali workers
There is still more than three million dollars in wages owed to crew. This includes those trapped on ships, and those now safely at home.

The money is essential for seafarers and their families in the Covid-era, where recessions rage back home and families often have accumulated debt in the absence of their main breadwinner’s income.

In total, over USD $3.2 million is still owed to seafarers once employed across 12 of Palmali’s ships.

Based on information from the ITF and the International Labour Organization, Bloomberg produced this table:

From Beirut to Baku: the crew of the Captain Nagdaliyev go home after hunger strike
While seafarers remain trapped on ships in Turkey and Italy, the crew of the Captain Nagdaliyev were released from their imprisonment by Lebanese authorities this week.

Speaking to Bloomberg, who has investigated how Palmali’s collapse was hurting seafarers abandoned by the company, Mohamed Arrachedi said of the Captain Nagdaliyev crew’s experience that “[They ran] out of food and water three times and no country or authority seems to care”.

Taking matters into their own hands, four seafarers aboard the tanker announced their hunger strike with an email to government agencies, copying in the ITF:

Due to the fact that my family has already experienced big problems at home, as well as my mother is suffering from cancer, I declare with all confidence that from today I am going on a hunger strike as the local authorities do not let me go home! I can no longer tolerate this inhumane attitude and declare that I am no longer responsible for my actions, since no one can help my desperate situation and psychological state.!!!  All my appeals for the past six months remain unanswered and resolute actions on the part of the local authorities. Today I will go from the ship to the pier and stay there out of despair until the issue of my repatriation is resolved!” – Azerbaijani captain of the Captain Nagdaliyev, Samig Nabiyev

While some of the crew had been permitted repatriation, Lebanese authorities consistently blocked Captain Nabiyev and three other seafarers from leaving the ship, as is their right. Until this week.

After 10 months trapped aboard the Captain Nagdaliyev, this week the crew finally headed home.

On Tuesday evening, Captain Nabiyev and three other seafarers had broken from their floating prison and were patiently waiting for their flights home at Beirut’s airport.

In an email to the ITF, Nabiyev expressed his thanks for the Federation’s support to get him and his crewmates home:

Dear Mr. Mohamed Arrachedi and all representatives of the ITF organization!

Allow me personally and from all the crew members of the tanker “Captain Nagdaliyev" who was arrested in the port of Beirut on May 12, 2020 and was abandoned by the ship owner, to express my deep gratitude to you for your incredible work in organizing our repatriation! Thanks to you, today, we can finally leave Lebanon and return to our families! For 10 long months, you took great care of us and our conditions of stay in the port of Beirut.

It is difficult to imagine how we would have survived all this difficult time without your invaluable help in organizing and paying for the supply of food, fresh water and fuel for our ship, as well as in finding and attracting a lawyer to our case, who is now kindly helping us to get our wages! We have never had to ask for help from the ITF before, so we only knew that you care about seafarers around the world from the outside, reading publications on the Internet and in the media.

Today, we want to express to you words of infinite gratitude and deep gratitude for the help that you have provided us all this time and that we have now felt directly! It is very warm to the soul that there are people like you who will never abandon or betray in difficult times, and who go to the end, defending the rights of seafarers!!!

Accept once again the words of our deep gratitude from the heart!!!

We sincerely wish you the prosperity of your organization! You are the only ones who will always come to the rescue when the sailors have no hope left! May your Great and Holy work be blessed!

“We wish him all the best,” said Arrachedi.

“These seafarers have been through hell. We need to see governments and the shipping industry start to understand that these are the human faces of abandonment.”

“They must do better to stop these cases from happening. They need to enforce insurance requirements for shipowners. They must protect, not imprison, seafarers when they are abandoned in their ports.”

“Abandonment is on the rise. Suffering at sea is at its worst,” said Arrachedi.

While the four-remaining crew of the Captain Nagdaliev get to go home, seafarers trapped on ships in Istanbul remain stuck. Arrachedi asks: “Is this the new trend -- that seafarers have to go on hunger strike to get home?”.

Why is this happening? The ‘dark web’ of global shipping where no one is responsible for crew
ITF President Paddy Crumlin describes the global shipping industry as similar to the ‘dark web’ of the internet. Players are anonymous. Accountability is low. Who is responsible for crew is more often than not deliberately obscured.

The frustrating reality of this ‘dark web’ is laid bare when shipping companies go broke and seafarers are left with nothing.

At the heart of the problem is the flags of convenience system.

For example, Palmali’s ships are registered in Malta, despite the fact the company has primarily been based in Turkey. This means that regulations are imposed and checked by a country (Malta) with limited power over the ships.

Malta is actually one of the more responsible flags of convenience states, according to ITF Inspectorate Coordinator Steve Trowsdale. But the number of ships registered there is disproportionate to the size of the country. And Malta’s resources are limited for regulating crew wellbeing, he said.

The Maritime Labour Convention contains rules to make sure crews are paid and can get home even if the shipping company gets into trouble (Turkey is, unfortunately, not a signatory). But real life is too complicated and unscrupulous ship owners can work the system. Even legitimate owners operate in a way that’s too complex for people to get legal remedies quickly.

The Lerik (IMO 9575319), for example, is beneficially owned by a Turkish company but registered in Malta via subsidiaries. The ship is insured in Russia. Creditors have gone to court in London and Moscow to seek payment from Palmali. The ship is at anchor at the port of Istanbul. The owner is in jail.

“It’s too easy for these different parties to pass the buck and claim others in this complex chain should be the ones to act,” said Trowsdale.

In practice, this buck-passing means crew are imprisoned on abandoned ships for months or even years while the wrangling goes on.

Trowsdale said if we got rid of flags of convenience — something ITF has advocated for many years — then a country’s fleet would be proportionate to its trading size and so it could bear the cost of proper regulation. Checks could be made on the quality of insurance that ship owners buy, for example, he said.

“That would mean speedy payouts if ships are abandoned, ensuring seafarers can get paid and they can get home quickly. Palmali has shown that seafarers are being left to languish with neither their freedom nor their wages.”

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