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The callous shipowner who drives seafarers to despair while the world looks on

25 Sep 2023

It has taken the attempted suicide of a seafarer to get Sea Lion Shipping Co to respond to repeated and urgent warnings about the welfare of its crews from the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF).

A crewmember of the Med Sea Eagle (IMO: 8356443), who must remain anonymous for legal reasons, was transported to hospital ashore on Thursday (21 September 2023) after taking an overdose of painkiller tablets. The ship has been at anchor off Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) since July. The ITF’s inspectors demanded immediate action of the UAE maritime authorities in light of this seafarer’s extreme situation. They responded quickly, taking the seafarer ashore for the medical assistance needed. All at the ITF wish the seafarer a speedy and full recovery.

“The question the maritime community now has to ask itself is: ‘how were things allowed to get so bad that this seafarer wanted to take their own life?’,” said Steve Trowsdale, the ITF’s Inspectorate Coordinator. “Sea Lion Shipping claims to be in financial trouble, but it is highly immoral – and contrary to international law – to shift the burden of its failures on to its crews. In any event, there are systems in place which are supposed to protect individual seafarers caught up in this type of situation. Those systems are failing, because of the underhand way the company is behaving and because a whole range of other people are ducking their responsibilities.”

Sea Lion Shipping must prioritise crew

Following the attempted suicide, in an email sent to the ITF, the ship’s owner said: “The financial losses our company has incurred, coupled with the fact that our entire fleet is currently inoperable, are gradually disrupting all of our operations. As a company, we are making every effort to rectify this situation, including exploring measures such as selling the ships.”

“Crew welfare must take precedence whatever the financial position of the company,” said Sandra Bernal, ITF FOC Network Coordinator for Asia Pacific Region, who has been acting on behalf of the Med Sea Eagle’s crew. “The company has several times promised to pay the crew and get them home, but these promises have come to nothing.”

On 8 September 2023, Sea Lion Shipping sent remittances to the crew, suggesting that their outstanding salaries were about to be paid. No payment was made.

“These people had already been trapped aboard the ship for months with no hint of when they might be allowed to go home,” said Bernal. “They were running low on food and water and many essential medical supplies had already run out. Three have been suffering with fevers and a fourth has extreme back pain. Issuing misleading notifications in that situation is positively cruel. It’s no wonder that some of the seafarers became so distressed. You would be distressed too, if your life hung by a thread controlled by such a callous employer.”

In fact, any claims the company has about crew welfare are given the lie by their actions over another ship the Med Sea Fox (IMO: 9376189), also at anchor off the UAE. After many months of applying pressure, the ITF managed to get 10 of its crew paid (although four Ukrainians are still owed for 26 days they worked in June) and repatriated, only for the company to replace them with 10 new crew members. The new crew have not paid for more than three months.

“The company has admitted it is in financial difficulty,” said Trowsdale, “so it is employing people in the full knowledge that it does not intend to pay them. That’s human trafficking in my book.”

A third ship belonging to the same company, the Med Sea Lion (IMO: 9350331) has been on the ITF’s radar for more than a year with several crews finding themselves waiting months for pay. The ship is currently abandoned in West Africa with crew unpaid and uncared for by Sea Lion Shipping. In June 2023, twelve seafarers from the ship who believed they were on their way home to India were turned away at a Guyana airport when it was discovered the company had issued them with fake tickets.

“In the case of the Med Sea Eagle, the owner has behaved abominably, the agent has refused to provision the ship until it had been paid by the owners, the Flag has abrogated all responsibility, the insurers delayed and the Port State Control only intervened following the seafarer’s attempted suicide,” said Trowsdale. “While all these different people are trying to wriggle out of their responsibilities, months go by while seafarers are suffering. We must, as an industry, find better ways to tackle these problems.

“In the meantime, Sea Lion Shipping must sell at least one of its ships to end its financial crisis and start treating its seafarers with the respect they deserve.”

The seafarer who attempted suicide has been released from hospital but – unbelievably – has been sent back to the ship. In response to the attempted suicide, Sea Lion Shipping has again issued remittances to the crew of the Med Sea Eagle but has again not paid against them. The ITF was assured that provisions would be sent to the ship on 23 September 2023 but no provisions arrived. The crew reports its situation as ‘desparate’. The ITF demands that it lives up to its promises to the seafarers on the Med Sea Eagle as a matter of urgency and also puts a plan in place to pay and repatriate crews on the Med Sea Fox and Med Sea Lion.