Union secures freedom for abandoned Filipino seafarers stuck in Singapore for five months

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

The ship’s owner 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 a massive US$429,972. 

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

But what the ITF’s inspectors didn’t expect, however, was that the shipping company would abandon another crew in addition to the Harmony at the same time. 

Between the Yangtze Harmony (IMO 9318917) and the Yangtze Fortune (IMO 9336282), the ITF’s months of advocacy would recover US$1 million in backpay owed to the crew, as well as flights home and the feeling of freedom for every one of the 43 seafarers.  

A tale of two ships – abandoned by one owner 

Soar Harmony Shipping Ltd abandoned the Yangtze Fortune (IMO 9336282) 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.  

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. 

The first reason was that more than half the Fortune’s crew went home in a matter of weeks, rather than languishing on board for more than five months — as was experienced by the entirety of the Harmony’s crew in Singapore. 

ITF Australia confirmed when one of the abandoned mariners, the cook, had a death in his family, the ITF along with the Marshall and Port State Control (AMSA), were able to coordinate his early release from the vessel, meaning the seafarer was able to be home and amongst his loved ones for the funeral.

A further 19 of the crew went home on 19 January. This mass repatriation was only possible because the ITF successfully lobbied to have the Fortune’s flag State reduce the ship’s minimum manning levels.

The ITF was able to make the case for reduced manning levels when it became clear that the Fortune would not be leaving anchorage anytime soon, with expensive repairs still required by Australian authorities before being permitted to sail anywhere.

Ships which are laid up (or can be considered non-operational for another reason) typically don’t need the same crewing levels as ships engaged in open ocean navigation or where a higher manning level to navigate through busy shipping lanes.

For the Fortune, the change saw its minimum crewing number reduce to 16. They went home in April.

Union secures freedom for abandoned Filipino seafarers stuck in Singapore for five months
The Harmony crew the night they left the ship.

Communication is key for crew

The second major difference between the two crew’s experiences of abandonment comes down to communication. Specifically – communication with the crew about their labor and human rights, and the various requirements which exist for parties with obligations to uphold them. 

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 Fortune’s crew were visited several times by local welfare and union representatives – including the ITF. The 16 who chose not to go home when the crewing requirement was dropped even enjoyed a Christmas dinner on board, courtesy of the Salvation Army, with good spirits helping to speed up the days until the ship’s sale and the seafarers’ many thousands in wages finally paid out. 

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 labor and human rights, such as those under the Maritime Labor Convention (2006, as amended).  

The Fortune’s crew did not have to endure months of uncertainty and confusion at their situation for the period the two vessels were under arrest by the respective countries’ authorities. 

Crew were kept updated about likely timelines, and provided the reasons behind any delays. Efforts were made to avoid legal wrangling between parties involved in the ship’s arrest and sale from getting in the way of seeing the seafarers paid their owed wages or flown home at the earliest opportunity.    

The crew of Yangtze Fortune in Australia.

Australian system working well

“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. 

“It’s good to see the 13 crew members of the Harmony joining the 36 of the Fortune who also went home recently. In both Singapore and Australia, the ITF has been effective in our interventions to see the two crews freed, paid what they’re owed for time on board, and repatriated home safely to their families.” 

Bray said the common-sense, compassionate approach to repatriation and crewing levels indicated that Australia’s systems for dealing with abandonment were functioning well, appearing to prioritize crew welfare and human rights where possible.

“We’ve secured for these seafarers more than a million dollars in owed wages – money that I very much doubt crew would have reached their pockets, if not for the relentless advocacy of my colleagues Matt Purcell and Sandra Bernal,” he said. 

“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 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’s legal system leaves crew in limbo 

On 25 October 2022, the Singapore Sheriff court seized the Yangtze Harmony on behalf of Glander International Bunkering over an unpaid fuel bill. That began a legal process to sell the ship and pay off its debts, including the US$429,972 in unpaid wages owed to the crew. 

While lawyers, insurers and bureaucrats slowly processed the case on shore, the seafarers waited and waited. Unable to return home to the Philippines, or to work and send money in their stead, their families struggled with their absence – emotionally and financially. 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 realize they have a clear responsibility under international law to act swiftly in cases where crew welfare is in jeopardy.” 

Singapore ratified the Maritime Labor 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.   

Trowsdale said he was looking forward to the upcoming publishing of joint ILO-IMO guidelines authored by the ITF and shipowners’ association ICS. 

The Guidelines on how to deal with cases of seafarer abandonment are aimed at port states (in this case, Singapore and Australia). They make clear that port states should prioritize getting crew home first and worry about money matters later.  

They explain how port states can adhere to the provisions of the MLC through practical examples, such as replacing the abandoned crew, wherever possible, with a local team. Or by relieving by putting the vessel in dry dock, or shifting it to a guarded anchorage. All of these methods can reduce the number of seafarers required to stay on board for safety and watchkeeping.

The Harmony crew waited at shoreside while anchored in Singapore.

Swedish P&I quibbles while seafarers suffer 

The Swedish P&I Club provided the financial security insurance for this ship. Under the MLC, if a shipowner fails to pay 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. 

“That’s not how insurance is supposed to work,” said Trowsdale. “The policy is due to be paid whether or not Swedish has a letter from the court, and whether or not Swedish thinks it can reclaim its costs. Their losses are not a concern for crew – ever. This money should have been paid out immediately to crew for their owed wages.” 

Swedish P&I eventually did pay the crew; after initially getting the account number wrong.

The Harmony crew spent five months onboard while in Singapore awaiting repatriation.

Port states must do better to protect abandoned crew’s mental health 

Sandra Bernal is the ITF’s Flags of Convenience Campaign Network Coordinator for Asia Pacific. She has been leading ITF’s advocacy for the Harmony’s crew, working day and night for almost six months to get the 13 home and paid. 

“The seafarers on board the Yangtze Harmony were suffering from fatigue, anxiety and stress, of that there is no doubt,” she said. “As would anyone dropped into a distressing and confusing situation such as this – abandoned far from home.” 

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 an abandonment can make a huge difference to the immediate welfare and mental health impacts for affected crew.

“In Australia, efforts were made by authorities to inform crew of their rights, to check on their welfare, and to put their human needs above the commercial interests of the parties vying for a share of the ship’s sale value. There are elements of this kind of approach that I would like to see more widely adopted across port States.” 

“I am just thrilled that they are finally home,” said Bernal. “I was in daily contact with them, and at times I was very worried about the impact that the uncertainty was having on their mental health.”

“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.

Top photo: The Harmony crew at Changi Airport, Singapore.

All photos credit: ITF

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