Malaviya Seven: At what price freedom?
Twelve Indian seafarers are closer to going home after a Scottish
court agreed to the sale of the Malaviya
Seven, an India-owned and -flagged platform support vessel that has been
detained in Aberdeen since June 2016.
The hearing, held on Thursday 10th August, is a step in the right direction for the vessel’s Indian crew, some of whom have been onboard the ship for 16 months. But the ordeal is not over yet.
A total of 24 seafarers, including some who have already been repatriated, are owed over $867,000 from the vessel’s owner, India-based GOL Offshore. Over 100 family members in India depend on these seafarers.
Subsequent to the hearing, the crew’s collective wages have been capped at $1,500 per day until further notice. The International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) regrets the wage cap but said agreeing to the arrangement was the only tool it could use to get the court to expedite the claims process, which the ITF thinks has dragged on unnecessarily.
The ITF said it has appointed its own independent assessor from Ireland, who will oversee the vessel’s sale – but it’s impossible to know how long it will be before it takes place. The court first needs a ‘for sale’ report before it will issue its decree ordering the auction. In the ITF’s view, there is now no incentive for vessel’s sale to be hurried along as, it said, “the costs are coming from the pockets of the crew”.
Even if the vessel were sold tomorrow, it remains to be seen how much money would end up in the crew’s hands. The crew members have a high-ranking maritime lien on the vessel for their outstanding wages – only the expenses of the Admiralty Marshal take precedence. However, how much they recover will depend on how much the ship is sold for in today’s depressed market. Online platform VesselsValue.com (VV) estimates Malaviya Seven’s current market value at $1.1 million – not much more than the $867,000 the crew are owed. VV estimates the ship’s demolition value at just $870,000.
The hearing’s outcome only highlights a complex web of difficulties that will take time to be resolved and for which seafarers bear the brunt. But the crew’s extended stay in Aberdeen has been made as comfortable as possible, thanks to the help of local seafaring charities.
“I got a phone call on the evening of the 14th of June  to say that a ship would be landing and could I make myself available during the night-time,” says Father Douglas Duncan, Apostleship of the Sea’s (AoS) Aberdeen & Northeast port chaplain. “I got another call, probably about 5 o’clock in the morning, and I went down and boarded the ship. That was, then, the start of the ordeal.” He has been helping support the crew ever since.
“I handled the ship previously but never realised the extent of the injustice that was going on – probably because they don’t want to say anything to anyone [in order] to protect their jobs. We realise now that more and more of this is happening unfortunately,” he explains.
The vessel was detained that night by the UK Maritime & Coastguard Agency (MCA), says Father Duncan. “Then, there was a hope that they would get out really quite soon but that lasted only two or three months and then they were released, paid their three months’ wages, they went out into the bay of Aberdeen and they came back in and they were detained again.
“It was at the request of the ITF and the MCA – [the crew] hadn’t been paid wages and that was the top and bottom of it,” he continues. “Some of these guys had been on that ship then for well over the three months. Some of these guys have been on that ship now for 16 months – they haven’t been paid for 12 months.”
“Not one person in court [on August 10th] enquired as to the wellbeing of the crew,” an ITF representative said of last week’s hearing.
The chaplain and AoS have helped support the seafarers in every way they can. This has comprised everything from providing food, days out, visits to church events and even supplying the vessel with an electricity generator, for which Aberdeen Seafarers’ Centre donated money for fuel.
Father Duncan even helped one seafarer renew his passport at the Indian consulate in Edinburgh. Officials wouldn’t accept the ship’s address so the document was sent to the chaplain’s home instead. “I hope he’ll be able to get home with it,” he says.
But though the crew have been provided for in Aberdeen, they remain under pressure to provide for their families at home. One seafarer broke down in tears – and not for the first time – when being interviewed by BBC Scotland, said Father Duncan.
“His family are looking for him to be home and he’s been taking out loans to support things back home, so I think he’s heavily heavily in debt – which is understandable if you haven’t been paid for 12 months,” says the chaplain, “so I’ve taken him out a couple of times on my own to the church – he’s a Hindu – but just for peace and quiet away from the ship.”
The ITF has been vocal in its criticism of the Indian flag state, which it says has offered no help. Neither has the bank acting on behalf of the vessel’s owner, GOL Offshore. Tim Springett, UK Chamber policy director, says that amendments to the ILO Maritime Labour Convention, 2006 (MLC) that entered into force in January this year would have helped the crew.
“The new requirement that all shipowners provide financial security to protect seafarers in the event that they are abandoned was agreed with occurrences such as this in mind. The crew would have become entitled to claim up to four months’ arrears of wages directly from the provider of the financial security – who would also have been obliged to pay for them to be repatriated,” Tim says. "Both the relevant flag and port states already had responsibilities under the MLC to intervene and ensure the repatriation of the crew where the owner of the ship has failed to do so."
In Father Duncan’s view, the delays have been an attritional tactic to avoid having to pay the crew what they are due. "It looks like somebody is stalling this [case] for time,” the chaplain said prior to the hearing. “They want these guys to go home and get paid later, but if these guys go back to India, they know they will not get paid.”
On the day of the court hearing, the deck of the Malaviya Seven was reportedly buzzing with well-wishers from around Aberdeen, including the city’s mayor, who apparently had not visited the vessel before now, in spite of the ship having been resident in the city for over a year.
“It’s just gone on too long and I’ve seen guys going downhill, mentally and physically,” Father Duncan says.
Meanwhile, there remain seafarers on abandoned vessels around the world, who are still waiting to go home.
“The ILO maintains a database of ships and their crews that have been reported as abandoned. Around 90 cases are currently shown as unresolved – which is less than 0.1% of the total world fleet. But this is little consolation to the seafarers on these 90 ships who – in the most serious cases – have been waiting for several years to be paid and go home," Tim Springett from the UK Chamber says. "We sincerely hope that the MLC amendments will bring this hardship to an end.”