Thirty five sailors were left unpaid for three months while aboard live export cattle ships with poor safety records amid a dispute between the ships’ managers and owners, one of whom is Australian businessman Nick Thorne, Guardian Australia can reveal.
The seafarers’ division of the International Transport Workers Federation (ITF) has claimed the failure to pay the crews of the Barkly Pearl and Diamantina meant they could be considered abandoned under international law.
Both ships are 70% owned by Singaporean company Beng Kuang Marine (BKM) as part of a joint venture called Cattle Line. Thorne owns the remaining 30% through his Northern Territory-based cattle export business, NTXLS.
The 7,700 tonne Diamantina and the 5,400 tonne Barkly Pearl normally take cattle from Australia to south east Asia but have been sitting idle in Indonesian waters for the past three months amid a dispute between the owners and their manager, Global Radiance Ship Management.
Ship records show that under Cattle Line’s ownership maritime authorities have repeatedly found both vessels to be in breach of safety rules, with 177 defects recorded against the Barkly Pearl and 68 against the Diamantina.
In January, the Australian Marine Safety Authority banned the Barkly Pearl from Australian ports for two years after it was seen listing in the water with a hole in its hull.
AMSA’s general manager of operations, Allan Schwartz, issued a statement at the time saying that the poor state of the vessel “put the lives of the seafarers on board at risk and posed an immediate threat to Australia’s marine environment.”
BKM has also been under financial pressure. A report the company filed with the Singapore stock exchange shows its shipping division, which includes Cattle Line, recorded a loss of S$17.1m last year, helping drive the company as a whole to a loss of S$15.4m.
John Wood, a campaign adviser with the ITF, said the Barkly Pearl was now at a shipyard owned by BKM on the Indonesian island of Batam, near Singapore, while the Diamantina was sitting off Jakarta after being arrested by the Indonesian navy at the end of August for anchoring in territorial waters without permission.
He said that after the ITF’s intervention, most of the Pakistani, Filipino and Indonesian crew members aboard the two ships were paid last week, but as of Wednesday morning eight were yet to receive what they were owed.
He accused a representative of BKM of abusing Pakistani crew members after the company paid them back wages aboard the Diamantina last week.
“The last witnessed words said by the owner’s representative … to the Pakistani crew when they signed off from the Diamantina was, quote: ‘You take all your salaries and then fuck off from my property immediately,’” he said.
In an email provided to Guardian Australia by BKM, the representative, a local agent, admitted to the outburst and apologised for failing to control his temper.
In email correspondence with Wood, BKM’s chief financial officer, William Lee, said that BKM was “committed to our obligations including crew salaries” and blamed the former manager of the two ships, Singaporean company Global Radiance Ship Management, which BKM sacked in October.
“We face payment and accounting irregularities with the ship management agent GRSM,” Lee said in his email to Wood. “They have yet to produce adequate payment records we have long requested for.”
Lee claimed to Guardian Australia that GRSM “stopped making payment salaries to crews”.
“We therefore have no choice but to step in to engage an independent reputable Indonesian agent to resolve their repatriation and make direct salaries payments,” he said.
He said it was “incorrect” to say that the two ships had a poor safety record.
“The vessels do carry out mandatory drydocking, repairs and maintenance,” he said.
Thorne did not respond in detail to Guardian Australia’s questions but also blamed GRSM.
“Cattle Line support our long-term seafarers and have fortunately been able to settle their outstanding salary when abandoned by our former ship management,” he said in an email to Guardian Australia.
“Termination was served to our former managers to ensure and uphold the integrity of the welfare of livestock and our seafarers.”
However, both Wood and GRSM claimed that GRSM had previously paid some wages out of its own pocket, without being reimbursed by BKM.
GRSM’s lawyer, Australian solicitor Sharangan Maheswaran, said the company commenced legal action in Singapore in September to have the Diamantina and Barkly Pearl arrested.
“The management agreements were terminated after demand letters were issued by GRSM for the repayment of significant outstanding debts incurred by Cattle Line,” he said.
“Both proceedings relate to significant debts incurred by Cattle Line to GRSM for goods and services provided to both vessels. There is no issue in the accounts kept by GRSM.”
He said the company was “disturbed by the treatment of the crew on both vessels” and its “most immediate concern is to ensure the crew of both vessels are not caught up in the dispute between Cattle Line and its creditors”.