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Seafarer free after 12 years

30 May 2024

Abdul Nasser Saleh is finally home with his family in Egypt, the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) is delighted to announce. 

Twelve years ago, Abdul Nasser Saleh took a job as an engineer on board the Al Maha vessel. He then spent a shocking 4,000 days stuck on board.   

By the end of his ordeal, Abdul, a Syrian national, was owed over US$178,000 in wages and had not been paid for nine years – but he knew that if he stepped off the ship, he would be unlikely to ever see a cent.  

The ship entered the port of Jeddah in June 2022.  The ITF urged the Saudi Arabian maritime authorities – as the only hope and last resort – to end Abdul’s suffering caused by years of gross negligence by the ship owner, Abalkhail Marine Navigation, and the complete failure of Tanzania to uphold its duty as flag state – the country where the ship is registered. 

Thankfully, in March 2024 things started to move, and in April, Abdul was given his life back. He told the ITF about his joy at being reunited with his family: “I cannot describe the feeling I had [leaving the ship]. I felt like I could run home to Egypt from Saudi Arabia. That I didn’t need to take a plane because I was so happy.” 

While welcoming Abdul’s release, the ITF has also condemned this case as a huge failure of the maritime industry and policymakers to ensure the basic human rights of seafarers. 

A relentless fight for rights 

“I was in a great distress. Living conditions were extremely poor. And that can't be compared to my stress and my family's,” Abdul told the ITF.  

“Imagine the absence of the family's breadwinner, who cannot provide them with moral nor physical support. My son had a heart attack and my wife suffered from a nervous breakdown. I couldn't provide any help to them,” said Abdul. 

“The story of Abdul Naser Saleh is a clear example of something that should have never happened,” said Mohamed Arrachedi, ITF Flags of Convenience Network Coordinator for the Arab World and Iran 

“At the ITF, we will never accept the abandonment of any seafarer as just one of those things. Nor do we accept the impunity with which some ship owners deal with their crew as if this is normal.”  

“We witness seafarers with no contracts, unpaid for months, and where the mere call to the ITF or to one of our unions to seek assistance results in threats and pressure.  

“Yet seafarers are bravely standing up for their rights. Industry and maritime regulators must listen. The flag state and port state have a very clear and central role to play to uphold their obligations,” said Arrachedi. 

"I fought relentlessly to obtain my rights,” Abdul explains. “But had it not been for the efforts of Mr. Mohamed Arrachedi, I wouldn't be home right now. There were a lot of threats and suffering. 

“I advise every seafarer who works on ships in the Arab world that if they face any problem, they should contact the ITF to get assistance and obtain their rights. 

“I thank the ITF and Mohamed Arrachedi very deeply.” 





  • International law theoretically protects seafarers like Abdul Naser Saleh from being exploited this way. But there is a serious loophole. Although ships often operate in international waters, they must be registered with a single country and that country, the so-called flag state, is legally responsible for ensuring the ship’s owners meet certain basic standards on safety and crew welfare.  
  • The UN International Labour Organization’s  Maritime Labour Convention (MLC) – which Tanzania has ratified – is designed to ensure a level playing field so the ships around the world meet the same standards on how seafarers are treated.  
  • The problem is that international ship registries are funded through fees charged to the ship owners. Meeting rigorous safety and welfare standards costs their ‘customers’ money and so the registries have no incentive to enforce the law. 
  • The 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea says there must be a genuine link between a ship owner and the country where the ship is registered. This is also the ITF’s policy. The practice of some countries to operate open registers (Flags of Convenience) where they register a ship for a fee but do little or nothing to meet their obligations under international law, has caused untold suffering to seafarers. Until the system is changed, seafarers like Abdel will continue to be exploited by unscrupulous operators. 
  • “At the grubbier end of the shipping industry, it’s like the police are being paid by the criminals,” said Steve Trowsdale, the ITF’s Inspectorate Coordinator. “What we see is ship owners who want to evade their responsibilities, selecting flag states they know will take little or no interest in enforcing standards. That saves them money but means crews find themselves on inadequate vessels, uncertain about how much and when they might be paid. Abdul Naser Saleh’s story is an extreme example but, unfortunately, cases like his are all too common.” 
  • “I’m disappointed that Tanzania doesn't feel it needs to do anything in response to continuous abandonment problems with ships flying its flag,” said Trowsdale.  
  • “How can it be that Tanzania has never responded to a single one of the abandonment cases of seafarers on board ships flying its flag?” said Mohamed Arrachedi, ITF Flags of Convenience Network Coordinator for the Arab World and Iran. “What is the limit?” 
  • Tanzania’s reputation on the high seas and the effective regulation of ship owners is problematic. Tanzania was formed by the merger of two newly independent countries in the 1960s. Tanganyika on mainland Africa joined with the islands of Zanzibar just off its coast. However, Zanzibar remains semi-autonomous. This history means the country has two ships’ registries. Mainland Tanzania has a closed registry (it only registers ships of Tanzanian ownership, largely crewed by Tanzanians) while Zanzibar has an international registry open to any ship operator prepared to pay the fee. 
  • The Republic of Tanzania has ratified conventions such as the MLC, but it is the semi-autonomous region of Zanzibar which operates the open registry under the Zanzibar Maritime Authority. Communication between the two seems limited and that makes effective enforcement impossible.  
  • “As in this case, it is ITF’s experience that the Tanzanian Flag does not take action when it receives requests relating to seafarer welfare, despite its commitment to the Maritime Law Convention,” said Trowsdale.  
  • “Our view is that a country should not operate an open registry unless it has the capacity to enforce basic labour rules on the ships it registers. A case like that of Abdul Naser Saleh would never have happened were it not for the Flag of Convenience system.” 
  • Tanzania is known as one of the worst flag state offenders of failing to step in when crew have been abandoned. The ITF reported 15 abandonments in 2020-22 alone. 

About the ITF: The International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) is a democratic, affiliate-led federation of transport workers’ unions recognised as the world’s leading transport authority. We fight passionately to improve working lives; connecting trade unions and workers’ networks from 147 countries to secure rights, equality and justice for their members. We are the voice of the almost-20 million women and men who move the world.  

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