Ukrainians risk lives, freedom to work at sea.
Larysa Salynska paid a high price for her love of the sea.
For seven months in 2009 she was held captive by Somali pirates aboard the Greek ship Ariana along with 23 other Ukrainians, suffering a painful illness and losing her newborn baby after giving birth prematurely.
But Salynska, 42, doesn’t plan on quitting her job as a ship’s cook.
"My children are growing up. My husband and I are building a house together, and this is our work that brings us revenue,” she told the Kyiv Post two days ahead of embarking on a seven-month sea trip.
Salynska in one of nearly 100,000 Ukrainians who regularly sail across the world on foreign ships, perhaps the largest group of Ukrainian labor migrants and the sixth largest number of sailors from any country.
Attracted by the relatively high salaries of more than $1,000 per month, Ukrainians are prepared to risk life and freedom in the face of pirate attacks, shipwrecks, imprisonment and job-related illnesses and injuries.
The danger of life at sea was underlined on Jan. 31. That's when seven Ukrainians died after a Turkish cargo ship, the Vera, sailing under a Cambodian flag, sank near the Turkish coast. While the official cause of the shipwreck still hasn’t been determined, experts say the ship sank because of its poor condition and shouldn’t have been allowed to sail.
Mykola Holbin, head of Azov maritime trade union, spoke to the survivors and said only one of three crewing companies that hired the sailors for the Vera was officially registered. He added that around three-quarters of Ukrainian firms involved in hiring for ships function illegally.
Every big Ukrainian coastal city has a maritime university, whose graduates become the principal officers, and many more colleges that train seamen. In Soviet times, these people found work at home, but around 90 percent of them now work for foreign companies.
"The lack of our own fleet is the main reason for vulnerability of our sailors,” said Hanna Maruhova, head of Assol, a relief fund for sailors.
Hundreds of unregistered firms offer sailors contracts without indicating the length of the trip, insurance or compensation in case of trauma or death. People often sign contracts in English sometimes "not even knowing the language and noticing only the sum of money,” Holbin said.
The sailors then work on vessels under so-called "flags of convenience” from countries like Cyprus, Panama, Malta or Cambodia. This means that those states’ laws are applied with regard to the ship and its crew.
This trick works like an offshore haven, allowing ship owners to avoid taxes, neglect vessels’ condition and also to be legally anonymous and difficult to prosecute in civil and criminal actions.
"We are not protected by any law in any state, that’s why they [the ship owners] treat us this way,” Salynska said.
Experts say Ukrainians are appreciated not only for their unpretentiousness, willingness to turn a blind eye to safety concerns and take risks, but also for their qualifications. Mikhail Voitenko, editor of the Sovfrakht Marine Bulletin website, said Ukrainians have leading positions in number of skilled crew members.
The most well-known stories of Ukrainian sailors in danger at sea have been taken captive by pirates. As wells as the Adriana, the ship Faina was taken over by pirates in 2008 and only released more than four months later after a $3.5 million ransom was paid.
Since 2008, 179 Ukrainians have been attacked by pirates, including five who remain captive on board an Italian tanker.
But the maritime experts say pirates don’t pose the biggest threat for sailors. Holbin said that he could remember about 40 cases of sailors losing their lives over the last year because of their tough job. "People were crushed by cargo, died of tropical diseases, drowned or even committed suicide,” he said.
Sailors not only risk their lives, but also their liberty. They are often held responsible for the cargo that their ship is carrying, even if they are unaware what it is.
"There are more and more cases when the authorities find and arrest our citizens for cigarette smuggling near the coast of Greece,” said Oleksandr Dykusarov, a spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
More than one hundred Ukrainians are currently kept in a special Greek prison for sailors, Holbin said, adding that usually the ordinary crew members don’t know much about the cargo, but stay in custody with little assistance from Ukrainian diplomats. "It’s often impossible to reach our consuls,” he added.
"Problems with freight depend only on its sender and ship owners. We never decide what we carry,” said Vyacheslav, a 29-year-old second mate on a bulk carrier with Ukrainian crew. He declined to give his surname for fear of losing his job that brings him $2,500 per month. At the same time his Polish, British or German counterparts receive at least twice more. "Ukrainian sailors are a cheap labor force,” he said.
The lack of attention to sailors’ problems comes in part from their own silence. The sailors tend to keep them secret, fearing to irritate the ship owners and lose their jobs, which pay from $1,000 to $3,000 per month, according to position, much higher than the average salary back home.
The global financial crisis of 2008-2009 hit the shipping industry hard, leading to financial problems in many companies that have affected sailors, relief-fund head Maruhova said.
At the end of January, six Ukrainian crewmembers from an Estonian cargo ship, the Nemo, returned home after spending a year in a Turkish port on a ship that had been arrested.
They had stayed on board, demanding their salaries from the bankrupt ship owner. They didn’t receive their pay, and eventually left the ship and were arrested for having expired visas.
Another 16 Ukrainians have been waiting in Sierra-Leone in high temperatures and without electricity since November to be paid by the Guinean owner on board of Thiangui-701 trawler.
Sailors complain of a lack of support from the state or maritime unions.
Vyacheslav, who is currently improving his qualification studying at Odesa Maritime Academy, said he doesn’t understand why he should pay any taxes to Ukraine which offers him no social support. Like Salynska, he said he wished Ukraine had stronger trade unions.
Holbin, who heads one of trade unions, recognized that they are disconnected and often stand on the side of the ship owners, who have money.
"There is not one body in Ukraine that would work only for sailors,” he said.
Oksana Grytsenko Anastasia Forina Kyiv Post
Kyiv Post staff writers Oksana Grytsenko and Anastasia Forina can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.