The 19 hunger striking seafarers trapped aboard a bulker off Kuwait have departed the ship after two years, according to the International Transport Workers' Federation (ITF).

The union said the crew left Aswan Trading & Contracting's 37,200-dwt Ula (built 1982) in early June in what it called "one of the most notorious cases of modern abandonment". The crew comprises 16 Indian nationals, a Bangladeshi, a Turk and an Azerbaijani.

Some of the seafarers had been on the formerly Palau-flagged ship for as long as 28 months and one for 31 months.

"Firstly, we have an employer hiding his true identity and ownership in the ridiculous corporate shadows allowed by the flag of convenience system, so that he can cut a crew loose and not have to face up to the financial and legal consequences of that decision," ITF Arab World and Iran network coordinator Mohamed Arrachedi said.

"Then, we have a failure of the flag state, which might as well be a flag of convenience. Palau, like other flags that are popular with dishonest shipowners, fail to enforce the standards that they are supposed to uphold under the Maritime Labour Convention."

He said flag states are supposed to make shipowners honour their obligations to crew.

"If they can’t, then they should really uphold those obligations themselves," he said.

Pandemic problems

"And finally, we see in this story a port state sadly more concerned about Covid restrictions than prioritising the payment and repatriation of abandoned seafarers."

Neither the Palau registry nor the Kuwait Ports Authority immediately returned requests for comment. A phone number for Aswan rang unanswered.

Rising abandonment cases

The number of crew abandonment cases jumped from 40 in 2019 to 85 in 2020.

The ITF said it was able to recover $45.6m in unpaid wages for seafarers in 2020.

Issues began in 2019 with a lack of food, drinking water, medical supplies and wages amid conflicting cargo claims and a mortgage claim by the Bank of Doha.

The ITF said it was successful in getting some wages paid in 2019, but the situation deteriorated in 2020, when the crew wanted to leave the ship and the vessel was in need of repairs.

The ship was sent to Shuaiba, Kuwait, but the country's Covid-19 protocols kept the 25 seafarers aboard.

After another stoppage in wage payments, a mutiny resulted in four crew being locked in their cabins. By October, six flew home.

In January 2021, the seafarers began a hunger strike, while the ITF prepared legal action in a bid to get all 25 their unpaid wages.

By June, Kuwaiti authorities had informed the union the crew could return home.