Australian maritime authorities have detained two vessels owned by controversial a Qatari shipping company for serious labour rights breaches just weeks after the crew on another of Aswan Trading and Contracting’s ships were driven to hunger strike off the coast of Kuwait.
The detentions mean that now half of the company’s fleet of six ships is out of operation. Aswan was blacklisted by shipping regulators in 2017 and its chairman remains wanted by Qatari law enforcement.
Aswan leaves Maryam crew without power, fuel in Port Kembla
The MV Maryam (IMO: 9272864) was first detained on 19 February in at Port Kembla, New South Wales by the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) for 36 safety and crew welfare deficiencies. Once inspectors from the International Transport Workers Federation (ITF) boarded the coal-carrying ship on the morning of 5 March, they found many more reasons the ship needed to be blocked from leaving Australian waters.
After speaking to the ship’s captain and crew, the inspectors found the ship’s owner, Aswan Trading and Contracting, had failed to pay key contracts to suppliers on a number of recent occasions, leaving the ship without fuel for the engine, power and lighting. During those periods of 3-4 days, refrigerators lost power and food had to be thrown out. With no lighting, air conditioning, or power to charge mobile phones and communication devices, the lack of fuel and electricity put the crew’s welfare and mental health in serious jeopardy. The 23 seafarers could not even have showers or flush the ship’s toilets – having to lift buckets of water from the sea below.
AMSA had found multiple problems with 2004-built bulk carrier’s main generators, forcing crew to use the ship’s emergency generator – which itself had no fuel and filter issues. A shoreside generator had to be found and lifted on deck to provide power to the vessel.
To make matters worse, the inspectors learned that the Maryam was due to run out of all its fuel once more – that night – at 9pm. Urgent help was needed.
The ITF contacted AMSA and the Port Authority of New South Wales’ Port Kembla Head of Operations, to relay the perilous situation faced by the ship’s crew to the two authorities. After ITF pushing, an empty fuel tank arrived at 2pm. A few more phone calls from the ITF resulted in a full tank being delivered at 7.30pm by the port authority. The second, full tank arrived just minutes away from the dispirited crew shutting down the generator, believing authorities would not come to their aide. A supplemental tank arrived at 4am on the 6 of March.
While the crew’s fuel crisis had abated, there were plenty of other issues onboard the bulk carrier to occupy the ITF and the crew’s worried minds.
On 6 March, AUD $3,000 of food was dropped to the crew at the ITF’s insistence by the Port Authority of New South Wales Port Kembla, including 1000 litres of bottled water, with the crew having just a few days’ supply left in the hold. Crew were provided with meals for a number of days to help them recover from weeks of malnutrition.
And unbelievably, crew hadn’t even been paid properly in the lead up to this hellish ordeal in an Australian harbour. Several seafarers were being paid by Aswan well-below International Labour Organization (ILO) minimum wages, and all of the 23-strong crew had yet to receive bonuses due to them. Preliminary calculations by the ITF put the outstanding wages bill for the unpaid bonuses and payment of wages below ILO minimums of the crew at US $27,978.50.
Normally some of the crew take a small amount of their pay in cash on board for buying personal items at various ports, either from agents like the Mission to Seafarers, or themselves when they are permitted to go ashore. The crew had been at sea for 14 days prior to their anchorage at Port Kembla and were granted shore leave consistent with current Covid protocols. Pressure from the ITF led to about US $5000 cash being given to the ship’s master on 17 March. He distributed the funds to the crew, who were then able to arrange to have some small personal items purchased on their behalf.
ITF investigations found nine of 23 seafarers on board were working on employment agreements that had expired on 11 March. A number had been on the ship for six months prior, and some just three. It is a breach of the Maritime Labour Convention (MLC) for a shipowner to have seafarers on expired contracts operating their ships.
Before the Maryam is allowed to leave Port Kembla (and start making money for blacklisted owner, again), AMSA has set out a number of ‘deficiencies’ that Aswan needs to correct. Top amongst these fixes should include repatriating nine of the crew who are over-contract and want to go home to Turkey, India and Georgia. Employers are required under the MLC to arrange and pay for flights home and other repatriation costs faced by seafarers. During the Covid-19 pandemic, this has also included paying quarantine and Covid testing charges.
The ITF understands that late last week Aswan made arrangements for parts to fix the generators. Surveyors from a classification society inspected the vessel Wednesday and are reportedly owed surveying fees by Awan for their services.
Second Aswan ship detained in remote Queensland
The Maryam is the second Aswan vessel to be detained by AMSA in the last month. The Panamanian-flagged bulk carrier MV Movers 3 (IMO: 9250244) was stopped in Weipa three weeks ago.
Weipa is the largest town on the west side of Queensland’s Cape York Peninsula and serves as the port for Rio Tinto’s largest bauxite mine in Australia, some 2,800 kilometres from Brisbane, the state capital.
According to reports confirmed by Australian authorities, the Movers 3 was detained, then released, only to be detained again, in the last few weeks.
The vessel’s engine has such serious problems that authorities are blocking the ship from coming into Weipa’s inner harbour. Instead, it remains anchored at Weipa’s outer harbour.
The engine faults mean the vessel is unable to be propelled, which is needed to produce potable water needed onboard for showers, toilets and washing up. Ships like the Movers 3 typically do this by producing freshwater vapour from the surrounding salt sea water with their hot, powerful engines. Potable water supplies onboard are due to run out this week and local authorities are attempting to source a third party will need to load water onboard.
The engine troubles are a sign of critically deficient maintenance and could be indicative of deeper problems, say local inspectors working on the case. Surveyors from the classification society boarded the ship Monday to examine its issues.
A persistent problem affecting crew welfare has been that the vessel’s freezers have been broken, forcing crew to discard meat and other food. The refrigeration situation, although finally resolved in recent days, had put considerable pressure on the ship’s cook, who resigned and asked to be repatriated to Turkey. He was taken off the vessel yesterday and flown. The cook will remain in the government’s Cairns quarantine facility for 14 days, before he is allowed to head home.
The remaining crew, who are a mix of Turkish and Jordanian nationals, have each been on the vessel for between three and six months. However, they are concerned that Aswan may be withholding their promised bonuses as the company continues to ignore its crew aboard the Ula in Kuwait, and fails to pay basic diesel bills in Port Kembla. The ITF is still establishing the extent of potential labour breaches by Aswan towards the crew onboard Movers 3.
The most immediate concern for the crew is a lack of fresh water and food. According to reports, Rio Tinto paid for and provided two small truckloads of provisions valued at about AU $3000. The need for emergency provisions funded by a mineral giant in the first place, suggests to the ITF’s inspectors that Aswan has major cashflow problems.
Rio Tinto operates the bauxite mine near Weipa, and is the largest user of Weipa’s harbour. Comalco constructed the mining town in the 1960s after successfully lobbying to have local Indigenous ownership and reserve status revoked in favour of a new bauxite industry, the main component in manufacturing aluminium. Eventually, Comalco would become Rio Tinto Aluminium.
The 2002-built Movers 3 came to Weipa from the Port of Liuheng, near Shanghai, China. It is unclear if Aswan’s ships have been embroiled in the ongoing trade war affecting dozens of ships laden with Australian cargo which have been blocked by Chinese authorities from discharging their loads at the country’s ports.
Blacklisted Aswan drove unpaid, abandoned crew to hunger strike in Kuwait
Aswan Trading and Contracting is a name well known to the ITF and its inspectors.
The shipping company made headlines in January this year when 19 seafarers working aboard its MV Ula bulk carrier vessel undertook an urgent hunger strike in the port of Shuaiba, Kuwait. The seafarers had gone 14 months abandoned by the company at the time, now almost 17 months. Aswan owes seafarers aboard the MV Ula more than US $410,000 in unpaid wages, as well as repatriation flights home.
The ITF has supported the crew with legal assistance, and a lawyer has been appointed to help them. The ITF was working to convince Kuwaiti authorities to intervene on their behalf, said Mohamed Arrachedi, the ITF’s Arab World and Iran Network Coordinator.
“But ultimately, the crew of the MV Ula are still stuck on this vessel without their wages and left abandoned because Aswan Trading and Contracting has neglected their responsibilities.”
“They victimised the crew of the Ula, and, despite getting caught out, it seems from the cases of the Maryam and the Movers 3 that they have continued to victimise seafarers on other ships. In my view, Australian authorities should be careful not to let these vessels slip through their fingers before they are completely sure that Aswan can, and will, honour all of its obligations to its seafarers,” said Arrachedi.
AMSA should ban Aswan – ITF
The ITF says Australian authorities needed to dramatically increase pressure on Aswan, the Qatari shipping company at the centre of mounting violations across a growing number of jurisdictions.
“This company is a notorious offender of regulation responsibility and MLC compliance. Two of their ships are currently detained in Australia by AMSA and they have left one abandoned in Kuwait, along with its crew,” said Ian Bray, the ITF’s coordinator for Australia.
Bray said the federation wanted the company to pay owed wages and bonuses and honour the two crews’ contractual obligations – including repatriation of those who were over their contracts onboard.
“We want AMSA to enforce compliance of Australian laws, and the Maritime Labour Convention that Australia has ratified. Companies like Aswan should be fearful of the consequences of breaking our laws and violating the rights of seafarers.”
“Aswan has now left seafarers abused, exploited or abandoned all across the globe. It’s been blacklisted by overseas authorities and one of its bosses is on the run from the Qatari cops: if those aren’t grounds for banning them, I don’t know want is,” said Bray.