From Longview to Tanzania: the long and strange journey of a Chinese crew struggling to get home

Boarding the Tai Honesty off Longview earlier this month, US Coast Guard inspectors found the 623-foot-long bulk cargo ship unseaworthy.

The problem had nothing to do with leaks, motor problems or overloading. Instead, the Southwest Washington Port Coast Guard team focused on the risk posed by a dozen homesick Chinese crew members who were stuck on the vessel. for more than 14 months.

“Crew fatigue and the length of time critical crew members were on board … presented a condition that was clearly unsafe for the safety of the vessel and the waterway,” said Petty Officer 3rd Class Michael Clark of the 13th Coast Guard District.

The Coast Guard has ordered the Tai Honesty to remain moored near Columbia River Harbor until a dozen new crew members are brought in as replacements, Clark said. The unusual action involved working with Washington-based representatives of the International Transport Workers’ Federation, who found that the workers had exceeded the 10-month maximum length of service specified in their labor agreement by four months.

“When we boarded, one of the sailors came up to us and said, ‘We want to go home,'” recalls Jeff Engels, who is based in Seattle for the federation, an association of international unions . ” That’s what it’s about. bring them home.

On Saturday, the dozen crew members were cleared from the ship, Engels said. They
then flew to Tanzania, where they are to be quarantined before returning home to China.

Tai Honesty’s crew members are part of a workforce that works aboard foreign vessels essential to transporting cargo to and from Washington’s ports. Since the COVID-19 pandemic took hold, many maritime crews who ship goods internationally have found themselves stuck on ships for weeks or months past contract expiration dates.

In December 2020, the difficulties faced by international crews trying to return home caught the attention of the United Nations General Assembly, which passed a resolution urging governments to allow “stranded seafarers to be repatriated”. , expedite their journey and ensure their access to medical care. .

The Coast Guard, in a March 2021 safety bulletin, cited the “physical and mental fatigue of sailors unable to leave their vessels at the end of their contracts” as a “growing humanitarian concern”. This bulletin included an email address for international sailors to notify the Coast Guard if they encountered any obstacles returning to their home country during a crew change.

The Tai Honesty came to Longview to pick up soybean meal, according to Ashley Helenberg, a Longview port official. The vessel’s registered owner is Taiwan-based Tai Shing Maritime, but it sails under the Panamanian flag, according to documents reviewed.
by Engels. A company representative could not be reached for comment.

The transport federation calls such arrangements – where a ship operates and is taxed under the laws of the country whose flag it flies – “flags of convenience”. Engels is the west coast coordinator of a global federation campaign to monitor these ships and enforce collective bargaining agreements.

Prior to the ship’s arrival in Longview, the Coast Guard received a tip from someone on the ship about concerns from 12 sailors – part of a larger crew of more than 20 – about their length of service on board. The Coast Guard then passed the information on to the International Transport Workers’ Federation, according to Clark, the Coast Guard spokesman.

China has locked down Shanghai and other cities in a bid to contain a coronavirus outbreak, and the country’s extreme efforts to contain the virus include lengthy quarantines for crews returning from service on international routes.

Engels said he and another federation inspector, Portland-based Ryan Brazeau, both boarded the Tai Honesty on May 6 to meet the crew after unsuccessfully trying to negotiate with an owner’s representative to securing return flights to China.

But after this meeting, the coast guard ordered the ship to stay in port. The owner then agreed to bring in the new crew, Engels said.

Last Saturday, the new crew had arrived and Brazeau returned to the ship to bid farewell to the departing crew members.

“They were very excited. The captain was the first to say thank you,” Brazeau said.

The Tai Honesty is now en route to its next port of call in the Philippines, according to Helenberg of Port of Longview. And the 12 former crew members have started an indefinite quarantine in Tanzania. Engels said the federation asked the owner to provide salary, as well as accommodation and meals, while the crew was in Tanzania. He still does not know if this remuneration, which is provided for in the employment contract, will be paid.