KOTA KINABALU: A cargo vessel moored near Gaya Island was finally brought to the old Sabah Ports jetty here yesterday, exactly a month after its crew sent out an SOS claiming they had not been paid since August and were lacking food and water.
Harbourmaster Salim Baee, who coordinated the effort, said the 2,500-tonne vessel had to be tugged from its original position as the generator set, which provides the ship with electricity, went out four days ago.
“There was no light on the ship and it was at risk of getting hit by other vessels or boats at night,” he said, adding that the ship only had one anchor left holding it in place.
“Its proximity to the water village of Gaya Island also worried me because if the anchor snapped, the ship could drift and crash into the hundreds of homes there,” he told FMT.
Salim said he had been working since last Thursday to bring the ship to the jetty where it would be safer for everyone.
He attributed the delay to government departments which he said had insisted on waiting for approval from the shipowner to move the vessel.
He said he decided not to wait for the approval as the situation was urgent, given the lack of fuel for the only generator set onboard the ship.
FMT understands that the shipowner will have to fork out between RM1,000 and RM3,000 a day as long as the ship is berthed at the Sabah Ports jetty.
FMT first reported the plight of the 10 crewmen, including one watchman, aboard the Malaysian-flagged ship last month after crew leader Khurshid Iqbal said they had not been paid since beginning work in August.
Their passports and other documents were also taken away by the owner via his agents in Sabah. Eight of the crewmen are Indian nationals while Khurshid is a Pakistani.
Their plight attracted the attention of the Malaysian Trades Union Congress (MTUC) Sabah chapter and the Sabah Environment Protection Association, which began pressuring the authorities and shipowner to pay the crew their salaries and return their documents.
The owner was eventually persuaded to bring the crew to hospital for medical check-ups. All of them had contracted skin diseases due to bathing in dirty and rusty water.
The Immigration Department also stepped in and recovered the crewmen’s passports and documents from the shipowner’s agent in Kolombong, Inanam.
However, the shipowner has still refused to pay them their salaries. He was also a no-show at a meeting with the Labour Department on Dec 26.
MTUC Sabah chapter vice-chairman Margaret Chin said she was deeply concerned as this was the second case of the ship’s crew being abandoned. The first case involved 20 crewmen from Myanmar and Vietnam in 2011.
“It is the same ship but with a different owner. The living conditions onboard the ship are not good and the crew are becoming more restless each day.
“However, now that they are at the jetty, it is easier for them because we can monitor them better,” she added.
Work to bring the ship to the jetty began as early as 9am yesterday and ended shortly before 5pm. The help of Captain Lubin Dominic was enlisted as none of the crewmen knew how to manoeuvre the vessel.
It was a moment of joy for the men onboard as the ship was slowly pulled into the jetty. The men shouted with joy, with tears streaming down their faces.
“Today is the happiest day for all of us. It felt like we were just given back our freedom,” said Khurshid as he thanked Salim and his men from the Sabah Ports and Harbour Department.
However, the crewmen’s health remains in question as seven of them, including Khurshid, have developed scurvy which can prove fatal if not treated early.
The ship’s generator is still not functioning, and the crew are in need of food and water. They cannot leave the ship as they do not have their passports with them yet, and they have no money.
“But now, half of our stress is gone thanks to MTUC and all those who have helped to bring us here. We are hoping for more good news in the next few days,” said Khurshid.