Vessels Belonging to Owner of Baltimore Ship Had Been Cited for Labor Violations


Ships belonging to the same company whose container vessel crashed into the Francis Scott Key Bridge in Baltimore on Tuesday have been cited in recent years for labor violations, which include underpaying ship crews and holding crew members on board for months past their contracts, according to the Australian Maritime Safety Authority.

In 2021, the authority detained the Western Callao, another ship formerly owned by the company, the Singapore-based Grace Ocean Private Ltd., after it found the management was in arrears paying 13 crew members and had kept them onboard the ship for more than 12 months, well beyond their nine-month contracts. In 2020, an inspection of the same ship in Australia found that eight sailors had been onboard it for more than 11 months.

Another ship owned by Grace Ocean, the Furness Southern Cross, had 10 seafarers onboard for more than 14 months. The infractions were “serious and shameful” violations of an international convention on maritime labor, Michael Drake, the executive director of operations for the authority, said at the time, in October 2021.

“This type of behavior is unethical and in complete contravention to the Maritime Labor Convention,” Mr. Drake said. “The international conventions that protect seafarers’ rights are very clear.”

Any factors about the crew of the Dali, the Grace-owned container ship that crashed into the Key Bridge, including fatigue, will likely be among the many items the National Transportation Safety Board examines as it looks for the cause or causes of the crash.

Grace Ocean owns 55 ships, according to Equasis, a public database of ship information. While global companies such as Maersk charter the vessels, the owners and the ship managers are generally responsible for managing the crew and maintaining the ships. The management company for the Dali, Synergy Marine, was not the company managing the two vessels cited by Australia.

The extremely opaque nature of global ship-owning makes finding the ultimate owners and holding them accountable for any violations difficult. According to Singapore company records, Grace Ocean is owned by the British Virgin Islands-based Grace Ocean Investment Limited. Lloyds List, which first reported Grace Ocean’s infractions in 2021, reported that Grace Ocean Investment is based in Hong Kong. But the company matching the name and address in Lloyd’s database dissolved in 2015, according to Hong Kong company records.

The Singapore company has four directors — two Filipino citizens, a Singaporean and a Japanese person — with all listing addresses in Singapore, records show.

Alexandra Wrage, the president and founder of Trace, a group focused on anti-bribery, compliance and good governance, said that ship ownership structures are designed to maximize opacity and minimize accountability.

“There are some good actors in this space, but shipping is the Wild West from a compliance and accountability perspective,” Ms. Wrage said. “And when compliance and accountability aren’t priorities, issues like environmental standards, labor practices and health and safety often aren’t either.”

The Dali had 22 crew members from India on board, according to a statement from Grace Ocean and Synergy Marine. None were injured.

An inspection of the Dali last year at a port in Chile found that the vessel had a deficiency related to “propulsion and auxiliary machinery.” The inspection, conducted on June 27 at the port of San Antonio, specified that the problem concerned gauges and thermometers.

The Dali has had 27 inspections since 2015, according to Equasis. The only other deficiency, a damaged hull “impairing seaworthiness,” was found in 2016, at the port of Antwerp, in Belgium. The vessel hit a berth at the port that year. A spokesman representing Grace Ocean and Synergy did not immediately have a comment on the labor violations or on the deficiency reported last year.

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