Five cruise ships in Essex and Bristol have been detained over “concerns” for the welfare of their crews.
Some of the crews had been on board for more than 12 months, payment of wages was late and “a number of expired and invalid Seafarers Employment Agreements” were found by surveyors acting for the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA).
That means the ships are in contravention of the Maritime Labour Convention, the MCA said.
The Astoria, Astor, Columbus and Vasco de Gama, which are berthed at Tilbury Docks in Essex, have all been detained, while The Marco Polo at Avonmouth Docks, Bristol, has also been held.
All five belong to Global Cruise Lines Limited and employ hundreds of crew each. They were all in the middle of cruises when they had to sail back to the UK because of the coronavirus pandemic and many crew have been unable to fly home due to global travel restrictions.
A sixth ship, the Magellan, was inspected but no significant deficiencies were found so it was not detained.
The All India Seafarer and General Workers Union wrote to the Indian foreign office earlier this week saying 164 Indian crew members on the Astoria have been “stuck in foreign waters for the past 90 days and need help”.
Many of the crew had begun a hunger strike onboard in protest and said they wanted the Indian government to help get them back to India, the letter said.
The ship’s owner said 50 out of 262 Astoria crew members had “commenced a strike, including no longer performing routine maintenance work onboard”, but said all were eating.
“Our crew have endured a prolonged period quarantined on board our ships during lockdown and are understandably anxious and distressed,” chief executive Christian Verhounig said, adding that many were unable to fly home.
Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said: “The welfare of seafarers is of the utmost importance and we take any reports of safety concerns around crew incredibly seriously.
“Following today’s investigation, five ships have been detained and we will not hesitate to continue to use every power within our control to safeguard the health and happiness of every seafarer currently working in the UK.”
The ships will be detained until the breaches of the labour convention are resolved.
Katy Ware, director of Maritime Safety and Standards, said: “This sends a very clear message that crew welfare remains a top priority for us both as a Flag and a Port State.
“We must care for the well-being and health of our seafarers who work so hard in the industry.”
Shipping records show the Astoria left Manzanillo, Mexico, in mid-February and arrived in Poole, Dorset, on 10 March before leaving there on 14 March and arriving in Tilbury the next day, where it has remained during lockdown.
Columbus sailed from Malta to Tilbury and the Magellan travelled to the Essex port from Reykjavik, Iceland.
Both have been there since April.
The Astor, which sailed from Bremen in Germany and the Vasco de Gama from Cape Town in South Africa, have both been at Tilbury since May.
The Vasco de Gama had dropped off Australian passengers at the end of March on Rottnest Island so they could quarantine for 14 days before being allowed on the mainland.
The Marco Polo arrived at Avonmouth Docks on 22 March from Aqaba in Jordan.
Global Cruise Lines, which has its head office in the Greek capital of Athens, is “designed to manage cruise ships around the world”, its website said.