Thursday, September 16, 2010

Abandonment of Seafarers—Part 2: Three Cases of Abandonment

Excerpt from U.S. Coast Guard “Proceedings of the Marine Safety & Security Council” magazine by RDML Charles D. Michel and LT Amber S. Ward, U.S. Coast Guard Office of Maritime and International Law. Read Part I here.

Case #1
In October 1998, the Coast Guard detained a Panamanian freighter off Long Beach, Calif., after finding a number of safety violations and unsafe working conditions including overcrowded living quarters, polluted drinking water, stale food, overflowing toilets, and cockroach infestation.

At the request of a seafarers union, which alleged that the owners had failed to pay the crew’s earned wages, the federal district court ordered the vessel seized. Under U.S. law, vessels can be seized by authorities to recover unpaid earnings.

Several crewmembers reportedly fled into the U.S. after receiving medical attention. The remaining crew survived on donations of food and supplies. After approximately two months, the vessel was sold for scrap value, less than the amount of the pending claims against it for back wages, maritime supplies, and medical assistance for its crew.

Case #2
Just weeks after the Panamanian freighter was detained, a Pakistani-flagged freighter arrived offshore Brownsville, Texas, after being abandoned in Mexico by its bankrupt owners. After being held offshore for five months, with food and water nearly gone and the crew in despair, the captain fled Mexico and made the risky voyage to the U.S. in hopes of finding haven and help.

The 22 crewmembers aboard survived on rainwater and fish, and were suffering from sores and skin rashes. Many had not been paid in two years, and had not been home in nearly as long. The local community rallied around the crew, providing donations of food, fuel, and clothing. Finally, in August 1999, after being stranded at sea for months and in Texas for several more, the last of the crewmembers returned home, although still without their full wages.

Case #3
In October 2008, two U.S.-flagged ships owned by the same company were abandoned in The Netherlands. According to the U.S. crewmembers aboard, the owner ceased paying the crew their earned wages and providing for basic necessities. The crewmembers were forced to rely upon a local charity for sustenance.

U.S. Coast Guard officials visited both ships, offered to provide assistance, and advised the seafarers of the availability of further potential assistance from the U.S. consulate. They also identified numerous safety deficiencies aboard and attempted to work with the shipowner to resolve crew and safety issues. As required by applicable treaty, Coast Guard headquarters staff reported both cases of abandonment to the International Labor Organization.

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