Hong Kong’s abandoned sailors now have food and legal aid, but still no wages

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Dozens of sailors abandoned on a cruise liner anchored in Hong Kong harbor got a delivery of food on Tuesday (April 12) from the boat’s owners, after Quartz and other media reported on their plight this past weekend. But the owners say they don’t have the money for their salaries.

Nearly 50 sailors from Myanmar, Ukraine, and China, have been living on the New Imperial Star, after the 400 passenger boat was detained by Hong Kong’s Marine Department for falling safety inspections in October. They are technically free to leave, but are waiting for months of back pay.

One owner of the stranded casino ship said the company had made a “mistake” in investing in the business, and that it wracked up “massive losses.” A representative of Arising International Holdings Limited, the registered owner of the ship, said in a phone interview he has been desperately trying to raise funds, but had been unsuccessful so far.

“We are trying our best to raise funds to pay off the crew. We don’t have much of a solution,” said the owner, who identified himself just as “Mr Wong.”

The ship’s 46 crew are owed up to five months back pay and have been subsisting on paltry rations since October. They hire a barge and take turns visiting the shore every two weeks.

On April 12, the crew went ashore to file for legal aid with the Hong Kong government, kicking off a months-long legal process that could lead to the ship being seized by Hong Kong courts and auctioned off. The proceeds will be used to pay the crew, which estimates they are collectively owed several hundred thousand US dollars.

The crew returns from filing for legal aid.
The crew returns from filing for legal aid.
Image: Stephen Miller

“We are happy that we completed this procedure to start the arrest of the ship,” Captain Valeriy Lyzhyn said.

It takes up to two weeks for the legal aid application to be accepted, and another three for the case to be submitted to court and the arrest ordered, said Jason Lam, Hong Kong inspector at the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF), a global union of transport workers. It could take two months or more for the judicial sale to be completed, he said. The process “could take more than six months,” he said.

The owner arranged for a fresh supply of food to be sent to the ship on April 12, which Captain Lyzhyn said would last seven days in normal circumstances, but that crew was going to try to make last for two weeks. “We still have no sausages, bacon, yogurt, or milk,” he said.

The New Imperial Star’s latest delivery.
The New Imperial Star’s latest delivery.
Image: Captain Valeriy Lyzhyn

The crew also received 50 tons of fuel, which is useful even though the ship is not moving because its electricity and air conditioning are powered by the ship’s auxiliary engines.

Mr. Wong declined to reveal who all the owners were, but confirmed “several individual investors from both China and Hong Kong” had pooled their capital to purchase the ship from Singapore in 2013. They were all first time investors in the cruise industry.

Wong said the ship was in operation for only a few months after the group took over, because Beijing’s anti-corruption campaign has taken a huge toll on the tourism and gambling sectors in Hong Kong and Macau.

Before the crew applied for legal aid, the owner, through management company Sun Junhao Limited, offered the Chinese crew two months wages to drop the case, crew members said. “We don’t believe the owner anymore. Whatever they will offer we won’t believe. We just want to go home. We will fight the case till the end,” said a Chinese crew member.

Skywill Management, the technical manager of the ship, terminated its contract with the owner in March, one source involved in the negotiations said. “There was always bickering over the bills and the ship was not properly maintained throughout the years,” he said.

Mr. Wong said the owners are aware of the crew’s legal action. The company will “just cross the bridge when it comes,” he said. He went to Beijing last month to raise funds, but had no luck. “The market has turned so bad in Hong Kong. We just hope to resolve the issue and will withdraw from this business completely,” Mr Wong said.