Chinese livestock vessel owner abandons ship, Filipino crew in Australia

Thirty Filipino seafarers are stranded in Australia after their employer, the owner of the livestock carrier ship Yangtze Fortune, abandoned both ship and crew.

The Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) is charging the vessel’s owner Soar Harmony Shipping of China and has detained the ship in Portland, Victoria after the company failed to pay wages to the crew and meet all other financial obligations under international maritime law.  

According to reports, Yangtze Fortune is registered under the flag of Liberia, but operated a trading route between Australia and China. The ship has been anchored near Portland since September 2022 and is now subject to an abandonment notice lodged with the International Labor Organization (ILO). The ILO has already received an abandonment notice for the crew that totals 36 crew members, 30 of whom are Filipino.

The Australian Federal Court is now looking into a case filed by commercial creditors from Singapore to recover debts owed by Soar Harmony Shipping.

Abandoned seafarers. Photo credit: ITF

Abandoned seafarers rely on support groups

The abandoned seafarers remain stranded and are now relying on the charity and compassion of maritime support groups and church organizations. They cannot return home and instead must remain with the ship as the court decides on the next course of action and until the ship’s sale is finalized. The seafarers will then be able to receive their full entitlement if the sale proceeds cover the company’s debts to creditors and the total unpaid wages.

According to Ian Bray, International Transport Workers Federation (ITF) Australian Inspectorate Coordinator, the shipping company owes the Filipino seafarers more than a quarter of a million dollars in unpaid wages. 

Unfortunately, Bray said, the seafarers must stay with the ship even as their prospects of getting what they are owed remain dim. They stopped receiving wages in October, and even before then, they received only one-third of what they were due. Based on investigations of the ITF, the crew’s payments in August and September were made using funds that were originally meant for the seafarers’ leave entitlements. The company also used its provident fund to pay the seafarers.

The ITF has also reported that five members of the crew had been onboard the vessel for eight months, but like the rest of the seafarers aboard the Yangtze Fortune, they were unable to put aside money from their wages for savings because the company paid them in increments.

In pushing for the welfare of the seafarers, the IFT initiated talks with the crew manager, ship owner and the Flag State. Results of the negotiations for the return of the wages, however, have been so far negative. The company said there is only a slim chance they are able to pay. Even if the ship is sold at auction, there is no guarantee there is enough left over to pay the crews’ wages and all other related costs.

In the meantime, Bray also said the Yangtze Fortune represented a recurring problem in the livestock shipping industry. He said shipping companies that transport livestock have a record of failing to pay their crew. The ships themselves also often faced financial management problems.

“We believe there is an epidemic of borderline insolvency amongst the operators of these livestock ships as they repeatedly feature among the worst cases in our inspections around Australia and internationally,” Bray was quoted as saying in reports.

Yangtze Fortune. Photo credit: Joy Ships Smith Facebook Page. 

Ship to be sold, charges pending

On January 11, the Federal Court of Australia issued new orders that the Yangtze Fortune be sold by closed bid tender. This came in the wake of initial orders last December 20 that the ship be sold and that Australian independent shipbrokers be appointed. The tender bids are expected to be in by February 10.

The sale is conducted following the terms and conditions set by the Australian Admiralty Marshal. While the effect under Australian law of the judicial sale is to free the ship from all liens and encumbrances and debts up to the date of the sale, the Admiralty Marshal’s office has said it will not issue warranties as to the effect of this sale under any foreign laws and/or foreign jurisdictions.

The 4,800-deadweight tonnage (DWT) Yangtze Fortune was built in China in 2005 and was put to use as a containership. Since it was launched, the vessel has been sold at least five times to different registered owners and undergone name changes in as many times.  Lately, the ship carried livestock between Australia and China and was manned by a 30-strong crew.   On the last trip before it docked near Portland, it was expected to load 5,200 cows bound for China.

AMSA has been monitoring the situation from day one, and the Australasian Global Exports has also issued a writ against the ship in Western Australia. It is claiming US$2.3 million in damages against the shipping company for failing to honor a contract for   booking in September. Following this, bunker fuel company Dan-Bunkering filed charges for non-payment of bills, and the Singapore Ship Chandlers Association has also filed a writ against Yangtze Fortune and its owners.

In immediate response to the situation, the Admiralty Marshall of the Court bought fuel for the ship and made temporary repairs as the ship had a hole in its hull. It was noted by the Australian maritime authorities that the Yangtze Fortune’s hull and machinery insurance expired last December 31, and this put all the claimants at risk. 

Yangtze Fortune. Photo credit: Joy Ships Smith Facebook Page. 

Appeal for help for abandoned seafarers

In the Philippines, a Catholic support group for seafarers called on authorities to go to the rescue of the 30 stranded seafarers and the group also appealed to Filipino Catholics in Australia to help.   

Balanga Bishop and Catholic Bishops Promoter of Stella Maris Philippines Ruperto Santos, said in a statement: “We deplore this unjust treatment of the vulnerable crews, currently stranded in Australia, whose only dream is to give their families a better life. 

“This despicable exploitation must be stopped and we pray that our seafarers may be given immediate assistance and every effort be made to protect their rights. We are also hopeful for their fair remuneration, not only the unpaid wages for their services rendered but also for the sacrifices they endured.” 

A report in UCA News said relatives of the stranded seafarers were not aware of what had happened to their loved ones. The wife of one of the seafarers said three days passed before she was able to connect to her husband after the ship set anchor in Portland on September 28 and abandoned there.  She said the vessel owner might have confiscated the seafarers’ mobile phones to stop them from calling their families and the maritime authorities.

Top photo credit: Joy Ships Smith Facebook Page. Yangtze Fortune.

Ina Alleco R. Silverio

Ina Alleco R. Silverio

Ina Silverio, our Philippine correspondent, is an award-winning investigative reporter. She is also the author of two books.
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