Labour violations lead to arrests of two Qatari-owned ships in Australia

Glovis Donghae, later renamed Maryam, in 2018 (Photo: voice)
Glovis Donghae, later renamed Maryam, in 2018 (Photo: voice)

Australian authorities have detained two vessels owned by a Qatari shipping company for serious labour rights breaches just weeks after the crew on another of the company's ships were driven to a hunger strike off the coast of Kuwait.

The detentions mean that now half of Aswan Trading and Contracting's fleet of six ships is out of operation, the International Transport Workers Federation (ITF) has claimed.

The company was blacklisted by shipping regulators in 2017 and its chairman remains wanted by Qatari law enforcement, the ITF added.

Coal carrier crew without power, food in Port Kembla

The Panamanian-flagged coal carrier Maryam (pictured) was first detained on February 19 in Port Kembla, New South Wales, by the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) for 36 safety and crew welfare deficiencies.

ITF inspectors who boarded the ship on March 5 learned that the owner 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. The ITF said that, during those periods, refrigerators lost power and food had to be thrown out.

AMSA had found multiple problems with 2004-built vessel'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.

The ITF inspectors also learned that Maryam was due to run out of all its fuel once more – that night – at 21:00 local time. This situation was remedied by the Port of Authority of New South Wales, which sent a full tank of fuel within hours.

Because the crew were malnourished and had just a few days' supply of food left in the hold, the port authority provided them with food and bottled water amounting to around AU$3,000 (US$2,280).

Further, the 23-strong crew revealed that they were being paid by Aswan well below International Labour Organisation (ILO) minimum wages and 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 approximately US$27,978.

Subsequent investigations showed that nine of Maryam's crew were working on employment agreements that had expired on March 11. A number of the men 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, the ITF remarked.

AMSA said that, before the ship is allowed to leave Port Kembla, there a number of "deficiencies" the owner needs to correct. These include repatriating nine of the crew who are over-contract and want to go home to Turkey, India, and Georgia.

The ITF added that 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.

Aswan has reportedly made arrangements for parts to fix the ship's generators. Surveyors from a classification society inspected the vessel on Wednesday, March 24, and are reportedly owed surveying fees by Aswan for their services.

Second Aswan ship detained in Queensland

Maryam is the second Aswan vessel to be detained by AMSA in the last month.

The Panamanian-flagged bulk carrier Movers 3 was stopped in Weipa on Queensland's Cape York Peninsula three weeks ago. According to reports confirmed by Australian authorities, the ship was detained, then released, only to be detained again, all within the last few weeks.

The vessel's engine had been experiencing serious problems that authorities are blocking the ship from coming into Weipa's inner harbour. Instead, it remains anchored at the outer harbour.

The ITF said 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 Movers 3 typically do this by producing freshwater vapour from the surrounding salt sea water with their hot, powerful engines.

The ITF added that potable water supplies onboard are due to run out this week and local authorities are attempting to source a third party to load water onboard.

Surveyors from a classification society boarded the ship earlier this week to examine its issues.

The ship's freezers are also apparently broken, forcing the crew to discard meat and other food. The refrigeration situation, although finally resolved in recent days, had reportedly put considerable pressure on the ship's cook, who resigned and asked to be repatriated to Turkey.

The individual was taken off the vessel on Wednesday and flown. He will remain in the government's Cairns quarantine facility for 14 days before he is allowed to head home.

The ITF said 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 said they are concerned that Aswan may be withholding their promised bonuses.

The ITF said it is still establishing the extent of potential labour breaches by Aswan towards the crew onboard Movers 3.

In the meantime, a local private company paid for and provided two truckloads of provisions valued at about AU$3,000 (US$2,280) to address the lack of fresh water and food aboard Movers 3.

The 2002-built ship came to Weipa from the Port of Liuheng, near Shanghai, China.

Abandoned crew forced to go in hunger strike in Kuwait

Aswan Trading and Contracting made headlines in January this year when 19 seafarers working aboard its bulk carrier Ula 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. The ITF said Aswan owes seafarers aboard Ula more than US$410,000 in unpaid wages, as well as repatriation flights home.

The ITF added that it has supported the crew with legal assistance, and a lawyer has been appointed to help them.

ITF pushing for AMSA ban on owner

Ian Bray, ITF coordinator for Australia, said that AMSA should ban Aswan for its mounting violations across a growing number of jurisdictions.

"This company is a notorious offender of regulation responsibility and MLC compliance," said Mr Bray. "Two of their ships are currently detained in Australia by AMSA and they have left one abandoned in Kuwait, along with its crew."

Mr Bray added that the ITF is still calling on Aswan 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."

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Baird Maritime / Work Boat World