ITF rescues abandoned crew from two ships from the same owner

Thirteen Filipino seafarers have made it home after more than five months aboard an abandoned livestock carrier ship, the Yangtze Harmony, following an intervention from the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF).  

Image credit ITF

The ship’s owners abandoned the vessel and its crew after the ship was arrested in October 2022 in Singapore over an unpaid fuel bill. That is when the shipowner also stopped paying the entire crew, leaving them without wages or a way to get home. By April, the crew were owed $429,972. 

The ITF said the Harmony’s Hong Kong-based shipowner Soar Harmony Shipping Ltd had a long history of abandoning crew, and its vessels have been detained before for violating safety and crew welfare rules. 

What is more, the shipping company abandoned another crew in addition to the Harmony at the same time, ITF added.

Between the Yangtze Harmony (IMO 9318917) and the Yangtze Fortune (IMO 9336282), the ITF’s months of advocacy recovered $1 million in backpay owed to the 43 seafarers as well as flights home.

“Soar Harmony Shipping Ltd abandoned the Yangtze Fortune after the Harmony’s sister vessel, also a livestock ship, was seized by the Australian Federal Court at Portland, Victoria over the owner’s refusal to make urgent repairs,” ITF said.

The crew of the Fortune turned out to be much more fortunate than their fellow Filipino colleagues aboard the company’s sister ship at anchorage in Singapore. 

Namely, half the Fortune’s crew went home in a matter of weeks, after ITF lobbied to have the ship’s flag state reduce the ship’s minimum manning levels.   

Ships which are ‘laid up’ or can be considered non-operational typically don’t need the same crewing levels as ships engaged in open ocean navigation or the passage through busy shipping lanes. 

For Fortune, the change saw its minimum number fall from 30 to just 16.  

The crew of the Harmony waiting in limbo, anchored in Singapore (Credit: ITF)

The second major difference between the two crew’s experiences of abandonment comes down to support for, promotion of, and adherence to crew members’ labour and human rights by the parties with obligations. 

In Australia, the crew had clear communication about what was happening to their case. They knew how to access shore leave and medical care.

The Australian Federal Marshall kept the Fortune’s crew updated on the ship’s progress towards its sale. This regular communication put emphasis on providing options to crew to consider, reiterating key information about their various labour and human rights, such as those under the Maritime Labour Convention.  

The crew of the other vessel had to endure months of uncertainty and confusion about their situation.

“We’re all very relieved to see the crew of the Yangtzee Harmony finally going home, better yet with half a million dollars of their owed wages in hand,” said Ian Bray, National Coordinator of the Australian ITF Inspectorate. 

“But I can’t help noting that the process took more than two months longer in Singapore than it did in Australia. Adhering to the rights of seafarers shouldn’t be a lottery for the crew. Their rights are their rights no matter where they find themselves being underpaid, exploited, or abandoned.  All port states must be encouraged to respond more quickly in the interests of seafarer welfare.” 

Singapore vs Australia

Namely, after the Singapore Sheriff court seized the Yangtze Harmony on behalf of Glander International Bunkering over an unpaid fuel bill, lawyers, insurers and bureaucrats slowly processed the case on shore, while the seafarers waited unable to return home, or to work and send money home. Some fell deeper into debt as a consequence, and in one case money ran out, leaving a seafarer’s loved one unable to pay for mounting medical bills. 

“It’s a complex process in any jurisdiction when a shipowner defaults on payments,” said Steve Trowsdale, the ITF’s inspectorate coordinator. “But authorities must realise they have a clear responsibility under international law to act swiftly in cases where crew welfare is in jeopardy.” 

Singapore ratified the Maritime Labour Convention (MLC) in 2011. This specifies how cases of abandonment should be handled. Trowsdale argues that in delaying proceedings for more than five months, Singapore may have contravened the MLC.   

The Swedish P&I Club provided the financial security insurance for this ship. Under the MLC, if a shipowner fails to pay the crew, the insurer should pay up to four months of the owed wages and cover the cost of crew repatriation. However, the P&I club initially delayed payment, insisting that it needed a court order first, according to ITF. Swedish eventually did pay the crew; after initially getting the account number wrong, ITF added.

“The seafarers on board the Yangtze Harmony were suffering from fatigue, anxiety and stress, of that there is no doubt,” said Sandra Bernal the ITF’s Flags of Convenience Campaign Network Coordinator for Asia Pacific, who has led ITF’s advocacy for the Harmony’s crew.

Bernal said the contrast between the way authorities in Singapore and Australia handled the two abandonment cases showed how a port state’s response to abandonment can make a huge difference to the immediate welfare and mental health impacts for the affected crew. 

“We have to remember that abandoned seafarers are not criminals – they are the victims in this situation. They are only there because their employer, the shipowner, let them down and did wrong by them. Crew should never be made to pay the price of their employer’s negligence – in money, time, or mental wellbeing,” said the coordinator.