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By John Helmer in Moscow

While unpaid Russian workers on shore petition for Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s help,block highways, or appeal for media coverage, Russian seamen have used a very old weapon to claw back their pay from Russian shipowners — their trade union. The union campaign at sea is without precedent on land.

Russia’s seamen said this week they are expecting to collect additional wage arrears, owed by shipowners, of at least $300,000, on top of the $400,000 already collected in this month’s campaign by the Russian Seamen’s Trade Union and the International Federation of Transport Workers (IFT).

Nikolai Sukhanov, head of the Russian union’s branch at Nakhodka, on the Sea of Japan, told Fairplay last week’s enforecement action took three months of preparation, and netted $400,000 in court-enforced collections from Russian shipowners on the mainland. He said $230,000 is still to be paid. He is expecting another $70,000 in arrears from owners of vessels in South Korea, and an unspecified sum from Japan, where 11 vessels were identified by IFT inspectors to be in violation of pay contracts, and are now under arrest orders to pay up.

At Nakhodka, Russian prosecutors have supported the union wage claims by going to court for Rb1.5 million in pay arrears ($46,875) owed to seamen on the ST Fidelity and ST Leader; the vessels, flagged at the Marshall Islands, were held as security for the payments.

Sukhanov said the union campaign will be repeated in another six months. Whenever wage claims amount to more than $50,000, the union intends to file for court enforcement.

Sukhanov explains the hide-and-seek method of Russian shipowners to avoid paying wages. “Ships registered in far-away countries have Russian owners, whose companies may be registered as residents of Cyprus, South Korea, Japan, or Russia. Some of them are in Moscow. We work together with the seamen’s trade unions of the Asian-Pacific region, and we send them queries about the addresses where the ships are registered. And it turns out those addresses are fake; they don’t even exist. And the owners turn out to live in Russia, or have Russian citizenship. They find us immediately after the ship is arrested, because each day of idling costs them additional big sums of money”.

An estimated 45,000 Russian seamen are currently serving on vessels sailing under offshoreflags of convenience. Companies registering in Belize, Cambodia, and Mongolia are among the worst offenders, the union leader said. “Take the example, of the vessel called the Tessa, which sailed under the flag of Cambodia. After it was arrested at the port of Vanino, on a Nakhodka court order, for nonpayment of wages of $100,000, the owner of the ship revealed himself as a citizen of Russia. He turned out to be a resident of the city of Yuzhnosakhalinsk. He arrived at the Union, and paid off the debt.

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