This image from video provided by Abdul Nasser Saleh shows...

This image from video provided by Abdul Nasser Saleh shows him in his bedroom aboard the cargo ship Al-Maha at the seaport of Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, in January 2024. Saleh says he rarely got a good night’s sleep during the near-decade he spent working without pay on a cargo ship abandoned by its owner at ports along the Red Sea. Credit: AP

Abdul Nasser Saleh says he rarely got a good night’s sleep during the near-decade he spent working without pay on a cargo ship abandoned by its owner at ports along the Red Sea.

By night, he tossed and turned in his bunk on the aging Al-Maha, he said, thinking of the unpaid wages he feared he’d never get if he left the ship. By day he paced the deck, stuck for the last two years in the seaport of Jeddah, unable to set foot on land because of Saudi Arabia’s strict immigration laws.

Leaving at last felt like returning to his “center of gravity,” he said.

Saleh’s plight is part of a global problem that shows no signs of abating. The United Nations has logged an increasing number of crew members abandoned by shipowners, leaving sailors aboard months and sometimes years without pay. More than 2,000 seafarers on some 150 ships were abandoned last year.

The number of cases is at its highest since the U.N.’s labor and maritime organizations began tracking abandonments 20 years ago, spiking during the global pandemic and continuing to rise as inflation and logistical bottlenecks increased costs for shipowners. Cases have touched all parts of the globe, with workers abandoned on a fish factory ship in Angola, stranded on an icebreaker in the Netherlands and left without food or fuel in Istanbul.

Yet the nations that register these ships and are required by treaty to assist abandoned seafarers sometimes fail to get involved in the cases at all. Tanzania, which registered the ship where Saleh was abandoned, never acted on his case or even responded to emails, said Mohamed Arrachedi, a union organizer who worked on Saleh’s case.

Shipowners often abandon crew members when they are hit by rising fuel costs, debt or unexpected repairs they can’t afford. Some owners vow to pay when their finances turn around. But those promises can mean little to the men on board, who often resort to handouts for food and basic supplies. Many are also supporting families back home and risk losing everything if they step off their ships.

This satellite image provided by Planet Labs shows the abandoned...

This satellite image provided by Planet Labs shows the abandoned cargo ship Al-Maha, at the seaport of Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, on March 5, 2024. The United Nations has logged an increasing number of crew members abandoned by shipowners, leaving sailors aboard months and sometimes years without pay. More than 2,000 seafarers on some 150 ships were abandoned last year. Credit: AP

Crew members or the countries where the ships are registered or docked can pursue the shipowners in court. But recovering past wages can be a yearslong battle that often fails.

Returning to Egypt in April was joyous, Saleh, 62, told The Associated Press, but also brought sad news. His wife and son were badly in need of medical care, he said. They had struggled during his decade without an income.

Saleh, who was originally from Syria, said he had once been proud of his work as an engineer on the Al-Maha, which made its money ferrying livestock for Ramadan festivities between Sudanese and Saudi Arabian ports.

From tip to tail, the Al-Maha spans the length of a football field, covered in dust and dirt and rusted green paint. While stuck in Saudi Arabia, Saleh and a small group of crewmates, also from war-torn Syria, placed a prayer mat in the pilothouse overlooking the port. A stray cat they named Apricot took up residence on the ship and followed Saleh around.

This image from video provided by Abdul Nasser Saleh shows...

This image from video provided by Abdul Nasser Saleh shows him on the deck of the cargo ship Al-Maha, abandoned by its owners, at the seaport of Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, in January 2024. Saleh, who was originally from Syria, said he had once been proud of his work as an engineer on the Al-Maha, which made its money ferrying livestock for Ramadan festivities between Sudanese and Saudi Arabian ports. Credit: AP

Saleh ran laps along the deck at sunrise and sunset. Every day he clocked 1,500 meters, while around him mammoth container ships arrived and departed from the busy port as his situation stayed the same. His debts accumulated from years of borrowing money to help his family pay rent.

The days blurred into a painful monotony.

“I can’t tell day from night anymore,” he said in a video recording he shared with the AP in January while still aboard the ship, filmed as the day’s light faded and a pinkish glow cast over the harbor.

A SURGE IN CASES

Owners abandon ships and crews for a myriad of reasons.

Cases first jumped in the early days of the pandemic, at a time when canceled shipments, port delays and quarantine restrictions pushed shipping traffic into disarray. At the same time, demand for goods by homebound consumers led to a rush of new orders for ships. But global trade soon shrank, and combined with spikes in fuel and labor costs, many of those new vessels are now at risk of being idled.

The increase in the number of cases logged in recent years is also due to better reporting efforts by the International Maritime Organization and the International Labor Organization — the two U.N. agencies responsible for tracking abandonments. With seafarer advocates, they’ve worked to identify cases and assist abandoned crews.

Cases last year were “alarmingly surpassing the previous year’s record,” the ILO and IMO said in a report this winter.

Many ships that are abandoned are barely seaworthy and servicing less profitable routes unattractive to the world’s major container lines. They represent a fleet of smaller companies sometimes operating on the edge of legality, for which a minor financial hit can lead to a cascade of unforeseen problems.

Owners might decide it’s cheaper to abandon a ship than try to save it.

The U.S., which has some of the stiffest maritime regulations in the world, isn’t immune to the global phenomenon.

In 2022, Teeters Agency & Stevedoring, a family-run company registered in Florida, dumped two 1970s-era cargo vessels — the Monarch Princess and Monarch Countess — that for years operated as a bridge for sending beat-up cars, cheap electronics and other goods to Haiti. The two ships were flagged to registries run by small island nations — Vanuatu, located east of Australia, and St. Kitts and Nevis in the Caribbean — criticized by watchdog groups for lax oversight and financial secrecy.

After the owners became insolvent and stopped paying dockage fees, the Port of Palm Beach and a private marina sued and a federal judge ordered the two vessels sold at auction. One fetched just $5,000.

Abandoned ships are sometimes so old and worn that “even the scrap guys lose money stripping it of anything of value,” said Eric White, a ship inspector for the International Transport Workers’ Federation, or ITF, a seafarers’ union.

Left hanging by Teeters were the ships' crews of mostly Ukrainian seafarers, who suddenly had no way of sending money to families back home in what was now a war zone after Russia’s invasion. In total, the 22 men were owed $130,000 covering more than three months, White said. If not for $22,000 in donations from local seafarers’ charities, none of them would have made it off the ship and back home, according to White.

The ship’s captain, Ievgen Slautin, said although he was still owed around $15,000, he thanked God he was abandoned in the United States.

“If it was in some other country, I could have been left there to simply die,″ he said.

Neither Teeters nor a lawyer who once represented the company returned emails or phone calls seeking comment.

Even workers who win promises from shipowners to pay their wages sometimes are left waiting for money after they leave their ships. Court cases to seize or auction derelict ships can take years to resolve. Other times, offers aren’t made in good faith. Some workers have departed for the airport only to find they were given fake plane tickets, union inspectors said.

One seafarer, Mohammad Aisha, drew international attention in 2021 when reports surfaced that he was living alone on a darkened and abandoned cargo ship in Egyptian waters, forced to swim to shore for food and water.

Though Aisha left the ship three years ago, the case is still working its way through the courts. He has not yet been paid, the ITF said.

Unscrupulous behavior taints the entire shipping industry, said Helio Vicente, a director at the International Chamber of Shipping, a London-based trade group for shipowners. That makes it more difficult for reputable liners to recruit. The industry, which employs about 2 million seafarers, is expected to confront a severe shortage of 96,000 workers by 2026, according to ICS.

“We don’t want a small number of bad apples giving everybody a bad name,” said Vicente.

LAX OVERSIGHT

Under the Maritime Labor Convention, a widely ratified international agreement considered a bill of rights for seafarers, workers at sea are deemed abandoned when shipowners withhold two months of wages, stop supplying adequate food supplies, or fail to pay to send them home.

The convention requires flag states to step in when shipowners abandon crews. They’re responsible for ensuring the seafarers’ welfare, repatriation, and verifying that shipowners have insurance to cover up to four months of wages.

The regulations are aimed at encouraging countries to thoroughly vet shipowners — and spot risks — before ships are registered under their flag.

But the rules aren’t uniformly followed, and beyond naming and shaming there are few ways to enforce the standards. Last year, nearly half of abandoned ships had no insurance, according to the IMO. In dozens of cases, flag states that are signatories to the international treaty never even responded when told by the IMO that crews on board their ships were stranded without pay. AP’s review found that countries notified the IMO of their efforts to resolve cases less than a quarter of the time.

The flag states with the most abandoned ships tend to have large ship registries by dint of offering lower fees. Panama has registered 20% of all ships abandoned since 2019, according to AP’s analysis of the U.N. data, followed by Tanzania, Palau, and Togo which each were responsible for about 5%. The four countries are all considered by the ITF to be “flags of convenience” with minimal oversight.

Of the four flag states, only Togo responded to questions from the AP. A spokesperson for the country’s international ship registry said it is difficult to vet shipowners’ financial stability, and Togo is “deeply concerned about the complex phenomenon of abandonment.”

The uneven regulations also influence the ports where ships are abandoned most often. More than a quarter of recent cases have taken place in Saudi Arabia, Iran and the United Arab Emirates, which haven’t agreed to the abandonment language in the maritime convention.

In the eyes of Arrachedi, the ITF organizer who worked as Saleh’s case manager, such countries are an ideal haven for shipowners who want to shirk their responsibilities.

“They know that this is happening in their port,” he said.

None of the countries responded to AP's questions about abandonment.

Saleh’s troubles began in 2015, when the Saudi owners of the ship, then called the Jeddah Palace I and subsequently renamed the Al-Fahad 1, first abandoned him and the rest of the crew along the coast of Sudan. He’d been working on the ship for three years at that point, aiding in the transport of sheep, cows and camels.

In all, he said, he was marooned in Sudan for seven years awaiting his wages. Though he had no income, he said, Sudanese officials let him come and go by day, and he returned to sleep on the ship.

When the ship sailed to Jeddah for repairs in June of 2022, Saleh expected his situation to finally turn around. He and the shipowner signed a settlement, reviewed by the AP, acknowledging that the company would pay him $140,000 to cover his overdue wages. He said he was told the ship would soon resume its normal trade routes.

But nearly two years passed after that agreement with no sign of new business — or Saleh’s money. He continued waiting, stuck on board but just steps from shore.

The ship’s flag state, Tanzania, which ratified the seafarer convention in 2019, didn’t respond to requests for assistance after being notified more than a year ago, Arrachedi said.

“This shouldn’t be normalized,” said Arrachedi, who worked for months to stir action from authorities on Saleh’s case. “You have a ship, this ship is in a port. There are maritime authorities there, and there is a flag there.”

Officials in Saudi Arabia gave little indication that they would resolve Saleh’s case quickly, Arrachedi said, despite the rusting vessel standing out like an eyesore in the country’s most important port.

The Al-Maha’s owner, Mishal Fahad Abalkhail, said he inherited the ship in 2019 from his father when he was 21 years old. He said the business was already deeply in debt. He said he disagreed with the terms of the failed settlement that he signed and noted that he is in a legal dispute with the shipping agent in Jeddah, which provided port services and ship supplies.

AP’s attempts to contact the shipping agent were unsuccessful.

Neither Tanzania’s maritime agency nor the Saudi Arabian Ports Authority responded to AP’s questions.

FISHING BOATS NOT IMMUNE

Of the scores of ships reported abandoned last year, just 12 were fishing boats. Despite being highly vulnerable to abuse and exploitation, fishing crews have historically made up a tiny fraction of cases — likely because they are less empowered to complain.

Thousands of miles from Saleh, on the west coast of the United States, Reyner Dagalea spent three months in Westport, Washington, scrubbing the fish hold of a tuna ship, washing the deck, and playing solitaire — anything, he said, to keep his mind off the money his family in the Philippines was waiting on.

He wasn’t alone: Nearly two dozen other crew members, all Filipino, were confined to fishing vessels belonging to their American employer, McAdam’s Fish, a supplier of sushi-grade Albacore tuna with whom Dagalea was locked in a bitter wage dispute. Without visas, U.S. immigration laws would not permit the fishermen on land.

Dagalea, 49, urged his family to be patient. “I cannot support you right now because I am stuck here,” he said he told them.

Though Dagalea said he worked 17-hour days for months catching tuna in the North Pacific, pay stubs shared by the fishermen and their employer show his pay arrived in small, halting sums — $200 one month; nothing the next. By Christmas, documents show that he and five other crew members who spoke with the AP were paid less than half of the wages they should have received. Their pay amounted to around $8 a day.

The fleet of four ships the men worked on are the first U.S.-flagged vessels listed as abandoned by the U.N. in 15 years. Their ongoing wage dispute reflects the precarious position of fishermen in an industry with few regulations guiding how and when workers are paid.

Unionization in the seafood industry is minimal, giving fishing crews few protections if they complain. They also have fewer rights than merchant mariners because they’re excluded from the Maritime Labor Convention. Instead, fishing labor standards are set by the weaker Work in Fishing Convention, which requires regular wages but has no formal definition of abandonment, and which only a handful of countries — not including the U.S. — have ratified.

McAdam’s Fish acknowledged the payment delays but blamed Pescadores International, a recruitment agency based in the Philippines, for being slow to disburse the six months of wages that McAdam’s said it had paid the agency in advance.

“Regrettably, it appears from a review of the manning agency’s report, that its payments were untimely,” Eric Sternberger, an attorney for McAdam’s, said in an emailed statement. The company asserted that it never heard complaints from the fishermen, and that in its decade-plus track record, no crewman had been underpaid at the end of a contract.

Pescadores’ owner offered no explanation for the payments delay when asked by AP but said that in previous years the fishermen earned far in excess of the minimum wage. He and Sternberger also sent the AP affidavits from fellow crew members alleging that the complaints were a scheme to obtain U.S. work visas — an accusation that Dagalea and the others denied.

“Those six have not contacted our office since they jumped ship,” Ricardo De Joya, Pescadores’ owner, said in an email.

Rob McAdam, the owner of McAdam’s, said much of his crew had worked for him for years because of the opportunity to earn good money. But last season’s catch was the worst on record, making it impossible to pay the same catch bonuses as in the past.

“Over the years, we’ve literally changed lives,” said McAdam, adding that some of the most loyal fishermen have made upwards of $100,000 a year. “It’s one of the few upsides of this business.”

Shortly after Christmas, officials with Homeland Security Investigations boarded the ships and union advocates with ITF began a campaign for Dagalea and the others to recoup the wages.

Six weeks after authorities intervened, and one week after AP interviewed the six complaining fishermen, Pescadores paid them each about $4,000 — amounting to much of the backpay.

Federal authorities have since granted the fishermen temporary immigration status to the U.S., and they’ve moved to a rental house in Seattle with the help of Filipino community members.

During those three months in Westport, before they complained, Dagalea’s crewmates faced similar strains, the fishermen and their families said. Richard Zambales wasn’t sure he would be able to pay for his wife’s heart medication. Albert Docuyan’s wife moved from the Philippines to Malaysia to find work that could pay the fees for their children’s school. Norberto Cabrela missed the birth of his son, then scrambled to find the money to pay the hospital bills.

Dagalea said the only thing he could do at the time was to keep working on the ship and stay busy. It helped quiet his thoughts.

“But at nighttime,” he told the AP, “you’re still going to think, because it’s already dark and you’re alone.”

BETTER THAN NOTHING

Back in Jeddah, Saleh kept praying for things to change — for the shipowner to relent and agree to pay him; for some way by which he could finally leave. He said he had trouble eating, concerned that his family wasn’t getting enough food. He barely slept.

“My whole life is anxiety and fear,” Saleh wrote to AP in February.

That same month, AP contacted Saudi Arabia’s media ministry, their U.S. embassy staff and the port authority in Jeddah with questions about his case. None responded.

Within two weeks of the AP contacting Saudi Arabian authorities, Saleh received an offer from the shipping agent to pay him. Over weeks of back and forth, they reached an amount Saleh agreed to take. The shipping agent visited the Al-Maha and told Saleh to be ready to leave in three hours for the airport, Arrachedi said.

“By God, I am happy to have reached this settlement,” Saleh told AP from Egypt. “I did not receive the full amount, but this is better than nothing and better than these problems, sitting on the ship, being abroad, and being far from family and homeland.”

For now, he’s focused on ensuring his family is healthy and safe. Someday soon, he wants to buy a house.

"It’s one of the worst cases I have seen in my 23 years as an ITF inspector,” Arrachedi said.

He said Saleh’s abandonment shows the harm flag states and port authorities cause by letting abusive situations go unchecked.

“Because to keep someone on board for 12 years and need two years to fix it is absolutely a failure.”

But in the meantime, there were new cases for him to handle. An urgent abandonment in Libya. A crew marooned in Sudan without pay for 16 months. An Egyptian sailor who was afraid and wanted to go home. And the list stretched on.

Wieffering reported from Seattle and Washington, D.C., and Goodman reported from Miami. Associated Press reporters Aaron Kessler and Ashraf Khalil in Washington, D.C., Manuel Valdes in Seattle, Kyle Marian Viterbo in New York and Sarah El Deeb in Beirut contributed to this report.

This story was supported by funding from the Walton Family Foundation. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

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Contact AP’s global investigative team at Investigative@ap.org or https://www.ap.org/tips/

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