Captain claims he was suspended for protecting crew from COVID-19 exposure

Crew of bulk carrier Tomini Destiny. Credit: Human Rights at Sea

Captain Rajnish Shah claimed his flag state endorsement was suspended on 8 June for measures he took to protect his crew from exposure to COVID-19. The shipowners instigated an investigation into two events it claims put the health and safety of its seafarers at risk.

Captain Shah, master of the bulk carrier Tomini Destiny, and his crew arrived in the port of Chittagong, Bangladesh, on 28 March. He raised concerns to the vessel owners Tomini Transport over fears of crew exposure to the virus during offloading operations. The captain claimed he received information from the port agents confirming the stevedores had not been screened for COVID-19. There was also a lack of personal protective equipment for crew on board, Captain Shah told SAS.

Captain Shah refused to begin offloading the vessel until satisfactory safety measures were in place and a representative from the flag state Marshall Islands was sent to mediate. According to the captain, he devised a cargo plan that minimised the risks of crew exposure, but this was rejected by the vessel owners. During this time, the shipowners allegedly carried out a campaign of harassment and abuse, threatening to fire crew members for not carry out offloading procedures. The internet was also allegedly cut off on board and the family of crew members were contacted with threats of arrest of the seafarers.

Captain Shah told SAS he only allowed cargo operations to begin on 7 April once the owners, charterers, and cargo receivers agreed to a list of precautions to be taken to minimise crew exposure to COVID-19. Discharge operations were completed on 21 April.

“I used my overriding authority to protect my crew while the vessel was anchored at Kutubdia Anchorage, Chittagong. We did address our immediate concerns in writing to the flag state,” Captain Shah told SAS. “As a master I did receive specific instruction and guidance from the Indian High Commission in Dhaka to keep the crew safe from exposure and take necessary precautions as per WHO guidelines regarding COVID-19.”

Captain Shah then signed off from the vessel with 9 of the 23 crew members in the port of Kochi, India, on 29 April. He explained that all the seafarers had worked past their initial contract expiration, with some in excess of 11 months on board. Captain Shah received a letter of suspension from the Marshall Islands registry on 8 June while the flag state investigated claims of misconduct put forward by the shipowner.

The allegations stated that the captain endangered the safety and security of the ship and crew by shutting down the long-range identification and tracking system on board, diverted the ship without authorisation, and delayed the ships’ berthing at Kochi by refusing to take a pilot on board.

“They [the shipowners] want to malign my reputation and discredit my actions for using my overriding authority, as per the International Safety Management Code, to protect my crew at Chittagong discharge and legitimate right to ask for relief of overdue crew members,” Captain Shah said.

In a statement to SAS, Tomini Transport refuted all allegations put forward by Captain Shah. “He is quite simply not stating facts,” said Sinead Brady, head of human resources and corporate communications of Tomini Group. “He put the health and safety of our seafarers who are front-line workers at risk; his actions were not only illegal, but they were unnecessary and wrong in our opinion and not becoming of his position of master.”

Laura Sherman, director of marketing and communications operations at International Registries, said that the Marshall Islands Registry is investigating the matter and is unable to comment on an open investigation.

The flag state has suspended his flag state endorsement while the investigation is ongoing. Without this endorsement, Captain Shah has been unable to work onboard Marshall Island flagged vessels since his suspension.

Seafaring charity Human Rights at Sea (HRAS) feels he is being scapegoated for using his overriding authority to protect his crew and going against the shipowners’ orders. “HRAS is watching the case closely. The determination by the flag administration in relation to Captain Shah’s future following the owners’ three heads of complaint, and which were swiftly rebutted with supporting evidence, is awaited with keen public interest,” David Hammond, CEO of HRAS said. “Further delay after three months is unacceptable, especially when an internal administrative complaint process is effectively controlling the professional future of an experienced master.”

This is not the only time in recent years that Tomini Transports has experienced issues with crew on board. The 21 Ukrainian crew of bulk carrier Tomini Majesty announced a hunger strike on 8 September 2020 after the company failed to provide a repatriation plan for them. The vessel went into drydock on 13 July 2020 in Huafengzhen, China. The crew have been on board for more than 12 months. According to vesseltracker.com, on top of the hunger strike the crew prevented dockworkers from carrying out repair works.

“We’ve committed to diverting the vessel to Korea and repatriating the Ukrainian crew once drydock is complete, this has been agreed in consultation with the crew,” commented Brady. The crew are still waiting to sail to South Korea for repatriation.