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Ship of Shame

Filipino Crew Stranded in Long Beach

By Sue Cauthen

The steel carrier Katerina was halted in Long Beach last September for oil dumping and more than 20 other violations. Its Filipino crew members had not been paid for several months. Fears of harassment, retaliation, and loss of future maritime employment plagued them as the rogue officers had warned them not to cooperate with government investigators.

Nevertheless, they did cooperate. And now they are paying for it — at home and, ironically, at the hands of the very government authorities they are helping to make their case against the shipowner and its top officers.

We talked extensively to the 13 crew members of the Maltese-flag tramp ship and obtained an 11-page Coast Guard affidavit detailing a laundry list of illegal and inhumane shipboard practices. Crew names are being withheld here for their protection. Threats against them range from blacklisting to physical injury to them and their families.

The men have been detained for four months as key witnesses in federal court. Initially they were housed and fed in the San Pedro Holiday Inn under an agreement the Coast Guard worked out with the Katerina's operators, DST Shipping of Thessaloniki. But the company completed repairs on the 21-year-old ship in October and sailed for a Chinese drydock with a new Filipino crew supplied by DST. The shipowner's agreement to care for the whistle blowers expired in mid-November.

On November 22, three days before Thanksgiving, the crew was evicted from the hotel. Technically, they were illegal aliens without work permits or any means of support. Then their saga took a truly bizarre turn. U.S. Marshalls clapped handcuffs and ankle chains on the crew and put them behind bars in an immigration detention facility. They spent the day shackled in jail before being released to a Catholic priest and taken to the International Seafarers Center in Long Beach.

Fighting Back

After a few weeks of shuttling between the Center, a nearby convent, and a Catholic church, the seafarers fought back. Stranded, with little money and no idea of when they would be allowed to return to their families, they threw a press conference to talk about the way they were treated by the U.S. Justice Department, the immigration officials, and the Philippine consulate, which ignored their pleas for help.

William Carter, a prosecutor with the U.S. Attorney's office in Los Angeles, told the Los Angeles Times that the government had no money to pay for food and shelter and had incarcerated the seafarers to provide them with a place to stay. Unfortunately, the DOJ hostel included hostile treatment. When the men left the jail, chafe marks from the shackles were still visible on their skin. Already fearful and traumatized by bad treatment aboard a ship that failed even to meet its required daily food allowance of $4.50 per person, some were in poor mental and physical health, without the means to contact friends and family at home.

Philippine vice consul Naomi Diaz did not return the crew's phone calls from their jail cell. Nor did a representative from the consulate appear to post bail as requested. After the press conference, however, the consulate found the crew a house donated by a member of the Philippine community. Funds and donations from religious and welfare groups and labor had been keeping the crew going. Suddenly came an influx of money for the support of the crew and their families back home.

Clearly the whistle blowers slipped through the regulatory cracks. The DOJ, Coast Guard, and Environmental Protection Agency need their testimony to lower the boom on the shipowners. But these agencies are not legally able to support the men while they await trial. Jeff Engels, West Coast coordinator of the International Transport Workers Federation, is working on two local members of Congress to change the law. He told Representatives Dana Rohrabacher and Jane Harmon that the ITF favors legislation requiring the government to shelter witnesses it detains.

But it was the Seafarers Center press conference that got the authorities' attention. And while the government bureaucrats pushed paper, the maritime community got busy. Captain Jim Morgan, head of the Los Angeles pilots, took five seafarers to a nearby medical clinic and paid for it himself. Captain Manny Ashemeyer, director of the Marine Exchange, got on the phone to government bigwigs. "Because of all the help, we are getting our morale back," said a crew member. "But we are still helpless and uninformed. And worry is always in our minds."

"I swear to God I will never go to sea again," said another sailor. "But it was necessary for us to make the sacrifice (to come forward) to make things easier for others."

The 13 crew members are staying in a two bedroom house in Carson. They walk and ride donated bicycles to nearby shops where they buy food. They got work permits just before Christmas and say they will do anything to earn their upkeep. "We are hoping the case is resolved as soon as possible so we can go home," said one. Federal prosecutor William Carter shares that view. However, on December 29 the Justice Department filed a separate suit against the Greek shipowner. The company had earlier fired local counsel that were representing the officers charged with the crimes and the court appointed new attorneys. Carter says the trial probably won't begin till February or March.

Ill Winds at Sea

The maritime unions call ships like the Katerina "flag of convenience" vessels. Eager to cut costs, the owners register their ships in nations with lax shipping standards and minimal enforcement. So-called FOC ships often use inexpensive third-world crews who are happy to get the work and are often acquiescent in a conspiracy of silence.

The Katerina exemplifies conditions seafarers often put up with, including orders to break the law. "They do it because they know they can get away with it when they use third-world crews," said a U.S. official who asked not to be named. The difference is that this time they miscalculated. This time the crew decided to report them.

The Katerina's master and two engineering officers were arrested for ignoring environmental laws, falsifying the oil record book, and failing to mention discharges of untreated oil sludge and bilge water. The Justice Department charged Captain Ioannis Kallikis, 64, with "corruptly" ordering crew members not to tell the Coast Guard investigators about the use of a bypass pipe to avoid the oil/water separator. Also awaiting trial in federal court are chief engineer Egardo Guinto, 49, and second engineer Rolan Sullesta, 41. A conviction could mean 20 years in prison for the captain and 15 years for the engineers.

The Philippine government is allegedly investigating the Manila-based manning (or crew hiring) agency — Michael Mar Phils., Inc. — following a request from the Philippine consulate in Los Angeles to look at a long list of charges, ranging from pressure to break the law, withheld wages, and below-contract pay scales to kickbacks and primitive shipboard conditions generally.

The Coast Guard investigator's report obtained reveals a pattern of abusive behavior by officers, including threats of bodily harm if crew members talked about illegal activity aboard the ship. It outlines the crew's fear for their lives and those of their families.

The 13 whistle blowers hope for an eventually monetary award from the U.S. government for their cooperation. Ten more crew members, who were paid off and flown home, say their ship mates are in trouble with the manning agency, which says they were overpaid. There are also threats that the whistle blowers will never see the inside of a ship again.

After the Coast Guard arrested the vessel in mid-September, the U.S. Justice Department charged its Greek owner/operators with illegally dumping oil into Pacific waters and lying to conceal a jerry-rigged system to bypass the oil/water separator. The vessel's log book contained false entries to throw off inspectors and the crew was terrorized into remaining silent about the criminal activity.

But whistle blowers from the crew alerted the longshore union and a team from the International Transport Workers Federation came aboard to check out the illegal discharges, unsanitary conditions, and primitive living quarters, including cockroaches in the galley and sleeping quarters, no mattresses, impure drinking water, and vastly inadequate sanitation.

Coast Guard Report

Simultaneously, a Coast Guard investigation team queried the crew members. An affidavit by special agent Gerald Cannon details subterfuge, intimidation, and blatantly false statements by Captain Kallikis and the two top engine room officers.

A representative of the ITF said that the crew had been directed to throw garbage and oily wastes overboard. He also reported a crew member's statement that chief engineer Guinto told the crew that if anybody talked, "they're dead." The ITF official described "deplorable living conditions," such as the untreated drinking water.

Coast Guard investigators noted 23 health and safety violations aboard the Katerina, including the unused oil/water separator, vermin and insects, faulty and illegal equipment, no hot water and a broken air conditioner. Meanwhile, crew members talked to personnel at the International Seafarers Center about the poor food, stopped-up toilets, indescribable piles of human waste, and a pervasive stench.

"This is the worst ship in a long time," said assistant manager Mary Bickey. "It's hard to believe these things occur in 2004. Animals are treated better." One engine room worker said that "slavery ended 100 years ago but it comes back at sea"

Sweatshops of the Seas

The fact is that some rogue vessels are literally sweatshops of the seas. In the shipping world it is no secret that many seafarers suffer silently. The crew of the Katerina is an anomaly because they spoke out. A letter to the Coast Guard signed by three engine room workers said that officer Guinto had ordered them to discharge sludge and dirty oil at sea as the ship approached Long Beach. One of them also reported that he overheard Guinto say that no one should talk about it or they would be shot.

Guinto said the oil sludge was discharged at a facility at Panama before the Katerina sailed for Long Beach. However, there was nothing about this in the log book, which showed that the last such discharge was in March at a shoreside facility in Syria.

The crew said that when the ship was nearing U.S. ports, chief engineer Guinto ordered second engineer Sullesta to remove the bypass pipe on the overboard discharge line in order to hide its use from the Coast Guard. Sullesta did so, the crew said, and rewelded the two blind flanges to make it appear that the crew were discharging the oily wastes normally. One seaman said the bypass pipe was used to dump oil outside of New Orleans, Houston, Port Everglades, and Long Beach.

Sullesta and Guinto denied these charges. However, another engine room worker corroborated them, and said that Guinto ordered Sullesta and another engineer to discharge oil into the ocean at night about two days out of Panama and prior to entering the Port of Long Beach.

Before Guinto was questioned, the USCG investigators reported, chief warrant officer Kenneth Vanek overheard Captain Kallikis telling Guinto not to cooperate with the Coast Guard and not to talk about the bypass pipe or the oil water separator.

During the interview with Guinto, the investigators heard Kallikis outside the room yelling, "Stop talking... the lawyers are coming." At this point, Guinto expressed fears for himself and his family's well-being. He ended the interview, saying he believed the company would retaliate against him and his family, according to the USCG report.

Transport workers union official Jeff Engels managed to get the crew $130,000 in back pay. He contends though that DST paid the crew less than the contract rate and said that crew members complained that the manning agent demanded they return some of the new funds. They also said that the use of bypass pipes is widespread, according to Engels.

The union official worries that the manning agency may blacklist or otherwise retaliate against the mariners who talked to the authorities. "We could do a better job of protecting them. We need to make it easier for seafarers to come forward."

He said the Environmental Protection Agency, a party to the court action, believes there should be a seafarer's legal fund set up so that future whistle blowers could mount an independent defense. Initially the attorney for the Katerina crew members was a Long Beach law firm paid by owner/operator DST. Now, however, they have been assigned public defender Lara Baselon, whom the men say they like. They were uneasy around the company attorneys.

Seafarers who sail on rogue ships are in a double bind, said Engels. Ship managers pressure them to look the other way and when they report violations to the authorities, they risk loss of employment. No wonder, he says, the crew of the Katerina is "scared to death."

Villains & Heroes

Essentially, this is a tale of villains and heroes. Among the latter are Elmer Tamayo Asuncion, an American citizen who is related to one of the men; Father Henry Hernando; and the women who run the Seafarers Center in Long Beach: Patricia Pettit and Mary Bickey.

Asuncion, who lives in Van Nuys, drives in to see the men almost every day. He makes phone calls for them and has taken them sightseeing and on trips to Disneyland and Las Vegas. They spent Christmas with him. Father Hernando, who runs a nearby church, found the men temporary volunteer work and put some of them up in a convent in Palmdale.

The Seafarers Center has been arranging for payments to the men’s families, who depend on them for support. The nondenominational Center has a yard with a basketball court and facilities for table tennis, billiards, and karaoke. There is also a chapel where the men say they go to pray for a safe homecoming.

The Katerina is a classic example of abuses at sea that never surface because seafarers fear retribution or loss of their jobs. For their pains, the men of the Katerina could easily be blacklisted by Philippine manning agents. In fact, reports from home say they already have been. The good news is that a Department of Justice anti-pollution program permits financial payments to whistle blowers; the payments are often derived from fines against vessel operators. Cooperative witnesses got around $1.2 million in a recent case. That's a lot of money for crew members who think $1,500 a month is excellent pay.

Will this encourage future crews to come forward? Not likely, said the folks at the Seafarers Center. "They'll say 'we're not going to tell; they'll put us in shackles,'" said Mary Bickey. "What kind of incentive is that?"

The question is whether there is a legislative answer that would protect whistle blowers while they await trial and provide a safety net against retaliation from management. But the shipping industry is a global business and it takes years to change centuries-old customs and rules. The international maritime organizations work mightily to ban rogue ships from the seas but all too many ship operators put maximum profit before human rights. Without increased vigilance they will continue to get away with it.


Another version of this article appeared in the January issue of the Numast Telegraph in London. (See www.numast.org/, page 25.)