LONDON: Iranian shipping companies have worked in league with international shipping recruitment firms to force large numbers of Indian seafarers to work in dangerous conditions with little or no pay, The Washington Post has reported.
Thousands of Indian men are reportedly lured to Iran each year by recruiters who guarantee them salaries and experience on reputable ships, sometimes promising assignments in other Middle Eastern countries.
The newspaper interviewed dozens of seafarers who said that they are instead sent to Iran, denied food, and at times forced to transport drugs and sanctioned cargo.
Ashkay Kumar, a 24-year-old cadet from Delhi, said: “They target seafarers for work without salary. It’s all a big trap. They forced us to work like slaves.”
Another, Ashwani Pandit, said that he had to take out loans to pay a recruiter $2,600 to secure a job onboard a ship that he believed was based in Dubai.
But he was then unexpectedly handed a plane ticket and visa for Iran.
When he found out at the last minute that he had been tricked, he was denied a refund and had little choice but to travel to Iran, where he worked on a small cargo boat for seven months transporting urea and iron to Iraq.
“My friends working on vessels in Iran warned me that companies there don’t pay salaries,” he added. “The same thing happened to me.”
Dozens of others reported paying thousands of dollars to recruiters for jobs and visas, only to find that they were tricked into working in Iran, rather than a more desirable Middle Eastern country.
Pandit left Iran empty-handed in August 2020 — his employer refusing to sign an exit visa until he had signed a contract stating that he did not require payment for his work.
Indians make up a significant portion of maritime workers worldwide. About 316,000 seafarers — or 20 percent of the total worldwide workforce — hail from India.
And Indian labor is especially appealing to Iranian companies, which struggle to recruit because of crippling sanctions that make the hiring process more difficult.
Andy Bowerman, regional director for the Middle East and South Asia at the Mission to Seafarers charity, told The Washington Post: “There is a close relationship between Iran and India, and therefore it is quite attractive in terms of securing visas.”
He added: “There are a lot of desperate people who will take a contract that they may or may not know has some risk to it.”
Many of those people working on Iranian ships also risk being caught up in geopolitical events far beyond their own control.
Jameel Akhtar, 29, from Mumbai, was among a group of seafarers who told of working on vessels smuggling fuel and other Iranian goods facing restrictions under US sanctions.
Akhtar said that after his tanker was caught transporting Iranian fuel in late 2020, it was detained by authorities from the UAE and remained anchored in port for months.
Then in July, four people wearing black masks and goggles, and brandishing guns, boarded the ship, tied the crew members’ hands behind their backs and threatened to shoot anybody who moved.
The crew was held hostage while the tanker was sailed to Bandar Abbas, Iran. Crew members were then released and assisted by the local Indian embassy to fly home.
Investigators concluded that Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps was likely responsible for the abduction.
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