The Newlead Castellano, one of 50,000 cargo ships that crisscrosses oceans delivering the world’s goods, had stopped in ports in Singapore and New Zealand, sailed the Panama Canal and picked up a shipment of sugar before heading to the U.S. East Coast.
That’s where its journey ended and the months of waiting began for its 15 sailors.
Built in China, owned by a Greek company, flying a Liberian flag, sailing with a crew of Filipino seamen, the 600-foot-long ship was just a few miles from the port of Savannah, Georgia, when the owner, NewLead Holdings, stopped paying the loan on the ship and signing checks for the crew.
For four months while a court case ensued, the vessel sat in coastal waters about six miles from Tybee Island. On board, 15 sailors waited with little to do, no income and no documents to set foot on U.S. soil.
“These are the ones you hurt for. They had no money to fly home and no visas. They were stuck on the ship,” said Father Richard Young, a port chaplain in Savannah at the International Seamen’s House, which provides services to sailors. “In these circumstances, we’re their only link to the outside world.”
Every year, sailors on ships in oceans across the globe find themselves in similar situations. As a globalized and competitive shipping industry struggles to fill ships with enough cargo to turn a profit, the crews aboard pay the price when the owners can’t pay the bills. Sailors, who overwhelmingly hail from poor countries and take grueling contracts to support their families back home, in many cases turn to charity, including a global Catholic agency, for support while they’re stranded for weeks or months, often thousands of miles from home.
The vast majority of shipowners provide decent pay and conditions for their crews. But a slowing world economy in recent years has cooled demand for goods and commodities, leaving shipping companies with excess capacity. In turn, they are increasingly unable to pay loans on multimillion-dollar ships.
“We’re in a position in which the freight rates have become very low and at the same time the lenders are unable to hold off any longer, and they’re calling in loans,” said Alan Swimmer, president of National Maritime Services, the Florida-based company that oversaw the Castellano until it was auctioned for $7.4 million, allowing the sailors to collect back pay and the ship to return to service.
The exact number of abandonments is difficult to ascertain. A database maintained by the International Labor Organization shows just more than a dozen a year, but officials in the shipping industry indicate it is incomplete. Swimmer said as many as 10 abandoned vessels can be found around the world at any given time. The crews on board, who may go months without being paid, are often stuck on the ships, waiting for the matter to be resolved and hoping to collect back pay.
“Spiritual support and contact with their families are the most critical components to keeping a crew’s morale positive in these situations,” Swimmer said.
From Florida to the Philippines, Hong Kong to England, and the coast of Georgia to Australia, chaplains and employees at charities in ports that see hundreds of ships every year say the need for organizations that support the sailors aboard those vessels is increasingly important.
Father Young and the hundreds of chaplains working through the Apostleship of the Sea, the Catholic maritime ministry, and in conjunction with other charities for seafarers, provide everything from grocery runs to pastoral care to the hundreds of seafarers that are stranded each year. In the case of the Castellano, a chaplain went aboard several times to celebrate Mass.
Goods from the world
As global trade increases, the shipping industry provides an invaluable link between customers and goods made overseas. From 2005 to 2015, the amount of cargo being carried by sea nearly doubled, to about 1.2 billion tons, according to world fleet statistics gathered by the U.K. Department for Transport.
It’s an industry responsible for carrying 90 percent of goods to consumers, yet Jason Zuidema, Quebec-based executive director of the North American Maritime Ministry Association, said it’s “largely hidden.”
“We never hear about shipping companies, even though they have a huge impact on our lives,” he said. “People might see a ship sailing, but what [ships] do is in the background. But people have no clue that there are humans aboard those ships, separated nine months from their families.”
John, a 27-year-old from Cebu, Philippines, is one of those people. Each year, he leaves his wife and child to take a job on a cargo ship that keeps him away for nine or 10 months.
“The pay is better than anything I could make at home. It’s enough for my family,” he said of the $600 per month he is paid, about three times the minimum wage for workers in the Philippines’ big cities. He’ll wire home most of his pay, keeping a little to buy Filipino foods he craves while he’s away.
“It can be tight,” he said, meaning that cutting his trip short, or refusing a decent-paying contract, is not an option.
So when he found himself last year on a ship that the owners had abandoned, he had no choice but to wait aboard, hoping that his nearly three months of back pay would come through. The conditions were difficult, he said, because of the uncertainty.
“We had food being supplied. And a chaplain would come from the port to give Mass a couple times,” he said. “It’s just that you don’t know what’s going to happen.”
He and the other crew, about a dozen, were eventually paid and flown home after they left the ship, he said. But in the meantime, his family had to borrow money to pay the bills. The steep interest payments ate into John’s pay and forced him to cut short his time at home and take another contract as soon as one became available.
Catholic News Service is withholding John’s last name and details about the ship that he was aboard because sailors, particularly those in the Philippines, can be blacklisted by shipping companies if they complain or speak to the media.
“They are afraid to complain. They are afraid to exercise their rights in some cases, because if they get sent home early, let’s say, they get a stamp in their seafarer’s book that says they’re blacklisted. Then, legally they’re dead. They can’t work anymore,” said Scalabrinian Father Paulo Prigol, director of the Apostleship of the Sea’s Stella Maris Center in Manila, Philippines.
The plight of Filipino sailors largely tracks the industry as a whole because the Asian country supplies about one of every four of the world’s 1.65 million seafarers, with workers from China, Indonesia, Russia and the Ukraine also in the top five, according to the International Chamber of Shipping.
Father Prigol said Filipinos’ ability to speak English, their attitude and training make them attractive to shipping companies. Each year, government-run and private training programs churn out around 25,000 graduates ready to be deployed, Department of Education statistics show.
Yet, the same attitude that makes them attractive to employers makes them vulnerable to abuses, Father Prigol said.
“It’s in their nature to just shut up and do the job they’re given and not complain,” he said.
Sometimes, that can lead to disastrous results, such as last year when eight Filipinos were sailing a tugboat they were not supposed to be on —their contract was for a cargo ship — and it was lost at sea. They’re presumed dead, said Father Prigol, who is pushing legislation in the Philippine House of Representatives that would give sailors better protections from abuses. It would follow similar laws passed in recent years that have incrementally provided more protections.
The difficulties faced at sea prompted the Vatican to ask Catholics to keep sailors in their prayers.
“The human and working dignity of the seafarers is at risk when they are exploited with long work hours and their wages are delayed for months or, in cases of abandonment, not paid at all,” said a July message from the Pontifical Council for Migrants and Travelers signed by Cardinal Antonio Maria Veglio, council president.
Conditions aboard a ship can deteriorate very quickly when a ship has been abandoned, said Tommy Moloy, a Liverpool, England-based inspector with the International Transport Workers’ Federation, a trade union that promotes rights for workers and inspects ships.
“When you see a crew that’s depressed by their situation, the ship very quickly looks like that as well,” he said. “I’ve seen crews who have had to catch their own food, who are provided with no recreational facilities, old televisions and radios that don’t work. It can be very difficult.”
In the worst cases, Moloy said he has been on ships that are so poorly maintained that he has been able to “put my fingers through holes of rust.”
In places like the waters off the coast of Australia, abandonments are rare, said Sister Mary Leahy, Sydney-based Oceania regional coordinator for the Apostleship of the Sea.
“We still have a reasonably strong maritime union here, so we tend to see the more seaworthy vessels coming this way,” said Sister Leahy, a member of the Religious of St. Joseph of Australia.
Human and labor rights advocates want to extend those types of protections internationally. That’s the aim of the Maritime Labour Convention, which will require ships to prove they are financially secure, provide basic labor protections to seafarers and give inspectors the power to detain ships if conditions are not up to snuff. Each country needs to individually ratify the convention, however, and companies sometimes employ tactics to skirt the law.
In England, for example, companies register the ships in foreign countries so they are not subjected to stricter British labor laws, said Moloy, the inspector.
“I know ships that are trading exclusively in U.K. with Filipinos and Russian crews, and they will run across to Republic of Ireland (to make stops) in order to give it international status,” he said. “In those cases, they don’t have to even pay minimum wage.”
Even with additional safeguards in place, the need for groups to support seafarers is increasingly important, said Lesley Warrick, executive director of the Seafarers’ House at Port Everglades, Florida, one of the busiest shipping ports in the U.S.
“For us, it’s the human side of the issue,” she said. “These are the people we rely on to bring us almost all the things we see, eat and touch. What did you have under your Christmas tree this year? You can bet it came through a seafarer.”
This is one in a series of articles produced in collaboration with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Catholic News Service.