Harrowing saga of a group of Indian workers, who are still held captive on an oil tanker off Sharjah, and forced to survive without enough water or food
By Probir Pramanik
Caught between the devil and the deep-sea is an oil tanker, with a motley crew of Indians, its Greek owner, and a UAE-based shipping agent.
At the center of the depressing tale is Hamoda-K, a Togalese registered oil tanker. It is yet to be determined whether it is one of the numerous “rogue” ships that ply on one of the busiest yet perilous maritime channels. For the past couple of months, it has been “anchored” off the UAE coast a few nautical miles from the Sharjah port. Its crew, 10 Indians and a lone Sudanese national, are without adequate water or food, and have not been paid salaries for the past three months.
The video footage obtained by India Legal shows two crew members highlighting the difficult conditions in which they are living. Rajiv Singh, a crew member, told India Legal: “We have been without proper food or water for the last 15 days. G Tankers, which owns the ship, has not paid us our promised salaries for the last three months amounting to about `2 lakh. We have been threatened that unless we continue to work in ‘illegal diesel’ business we will not be paid.”
Echoing Singh is another un-named crew member from Kerala: “We want to get out. Please help us get out of this place. When we ask about our dues, they say since you are an Indian, call up the general manager. We were given a mobile number of the shipping firm that has leased the vessel. When contacted, the crew was told that the owner of
G Tankers (which owns the vessel) was in jail in Greece.”
Anis Thomas, an official for the Greece-registered company, accuses the tanker crew of being in cahoots with Somali pirates. He alleges that the members illegally pumped off and sold a part of the precious natural gas oil cargo. Countering the allegations, the ship’s captain, Ragvir Singh, blames the owners and the agent of falsely implicating the crew to “put the lid” on the well-oiled illegal cross-border trade in natural gas oil.
In an exclusive interview, Thomas, manager of the UAE-based Al Taawon Shipping, the agent of the vessel, gave reasons for the plight of the tanker and its crew. “One reason why Hamoda-K has been anchored off Sharjah coast for the past month is due to non-payment of anchorage by the owner. A shipping agent has to pay for port anchorage. The ship has not been permitted to come to the port because the owner has not paid us. But the real issue is more serious than this issue, or what the crew seems to be disclosing.”
He charges that the crew, masterminded by the ship’s captain, “cheated” G Tankers of $60,000. Explains Thomas: “Hamoda-K loaded 65 tons of natural gas oil from the UAE for a buyer in Somalia. However, when the tanker reached its destination, there was a shortage of 35 tons.”
Both Al Taawon and G Tankers maintain that the missing cargo was sold off to Somali pirates on the high seas. Thomas adds: “The Greek owner has refused to relieve the crew and the captain or pay salaries until $60,000 is recovered.”
Sympathizing with the plight of the crew members, Thomas says: “As an Indian, I understand the plight of the crew members. But, as the ship’s agent, our role is limited. Unless we get remittance from the owner, we cannot clear the crew’s salaries. However, on humanitarian grounds, we have provided food and water to the crew.”
The ship’s captain disagrees: “The allegation of the crew selling off a part of the cargo—that too mid-sea—is concocted. We were attacked by Somali pirates in the Gulf of Aden. We sent an SOS to the NATO forces. The pirates escaped on seeing a NATO chopper. You can check with NATO forces patrolling the waters off the Somali coast about the attack on April 23. We were attacked again on our return journey and were saved in the nick of time by the presence of a British naval vessel. When we reported the attacks to the authorities on our return, we were asked to head to Bandar Abbas (Iran) and wait there.”
Thanks to global sanctions against Iran, there is a rise in illegal trade over land and sea routes with neighboring nations. One of the major products that’s smuggled from Iran is natural gas oil, or diesel. Experts estimate that up to 10 million liters may be sold in the black market every day. Global analysts contend that the rise in domestic consumption of fuel can be attributed to the illicit trade. Ship owners, shipping agents, pirates and established firms are involved in the racket.
Willy-nilly, Indians have got involved, mostly as crew members of the ships. They often fall prey to the illicit oil traders and end up in jails. Over 300 Indians are languishing in jails in Egypt, Qatar, UAE and other Gulf countries for their alleged role in the racket.
While going to press, India Legal learnt that the owner had offered a “compromise formula” to the clear the salaries of Hamoda-K’s crew and relieve them on their arrival at Sharjah. They wait with a new hope.
—With inputs from Ursilla Ali and Akshat Agarwal
Nefarious human trafficking
When they head to the “promised land” their minds are ecstatic with hope. Poverty, they think, will be history. Dubai has always been seen as a golden land, with umpteen opportunities for the Indian migrants, who would soon be able to turn the fortunes of
their poverty-stricken families
Most of these laborers are from Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Bengal and Kerala, hoping that their sojourn is going to change their lives. Then they are hit by the harsh realities.
Promised lucrative jobs with unheard of salaries ranging between Rs. 1.5 lakh to 2 lakh per month, these gullible people are duped by organized international cartels of modern-day slave traders. Only to be entangled in forced labor. India Legal is in
possession of exclusive video footage from a stranded ship, which reveals the sordid saga of a group of 10 Indians crew
members, all at sea.
Investigations expose the grim reality of the complicated connect between modern-day slave trade, piracy and the oil mafia. They
highlight the plight of thousands of South Asian nationals, including Indians, who end up in labor camps across the Gulf countries.
Apart from the horrific work conditions on the ships, mostly registered in small African countries like Liberia, Togo, Benin and Ghana, the migrant Indian workers are being regularly beaten and forced to work long hours at sea for months on end—and even years. Besides, they are sucked into the vortex of high-sea piracy, forced to work on “oil-running” vessels that are operated and run by organized shipping cartels and cross-border smugglers.
The entire saga brings to light the larger question of how the Indian government turns a blind eye to the nefarious travel agents and touts operating from India. Due to a skewered foreign policy, especially the lack of a clear-cut policy for Middle East, hapless workers have to live with a precarious legal status.
On arrival to the Gulf, their passports are invariably taken away by the local sponsors (employers), as most countries in the Middle East require foreign workers to have a “kafeel” or a local sponsor to recommend a visa for an expatriate. The
residence permit or “iqama” is then issued to the expat in the name of the sponsor. This gives the sponsor virtual control over
the life of the expat.