DUBAI — Iranian shipping companies in league with international recruiting firms have been forcing large numbers of Indian seafarers to work in dangerous conditions, often with little or no pay, according to more than two dozen men who say they were tricked into taking this employment.

Thousands of Indian men are lured to Iran each year by recruiters guaranteeing salaries and experience aboard reputable ships and often promising assignments in other Middle Eastern countries, say Indian seafarers and maritime activists. Instead, the seafarers say, they are sent to Iran and put to sea, where they are overworked, denied enough food and at times forced to transport drugs and cargo that is under international sanctions.

“They target seafarers for work without salary. It’s all a big trap,” said Ashkay Kumar, a 24-year-old deck cadet from Delhi who was among 26 Indian men interviewed about their experience with Iranian shipping. “They forced us to work like slaves.”

When a job recruitment agent in India handed Ashwani Pandit a plane ticket and visa for Iran early last year, he panicked. The 24-year-old from Bihar state said he had taken out loans to pay the recruiter $2,600 to secure a job aboard a ship that Pandit believed was based in Dubai. He hoped it would give him the experience needed to start a career at sea.

When he found out at the last minute that he had been tricked, Pandit said, he was denied a refund and had little choice but to travel to Iran, where he toiled aboard a small cargo boat for seven months transporting urea and iron to Iraq.

“My friends working on vessels in Iran warned me companies there don’t pay salaries,” he said. “The same thing happened to me.”

Pandit ultimately left Iran empty-handed in August 2020. His employer, Dashti Marine Co., arranged his exit visa on the condition he sign a contract stating he did not require payment for his work. The document, seen by The Washington Post, declares that his only compensation is a letter from the company confirming his work experience.

Babak Dashti, the owner of Dashti Marine, declined to comment.

Indians represent a significant share of the seafarers employed by Iranian companies, in part because India is a major source of maritime labor worldwide. About 316,000 Indians work as seafarers, nearly 20 percent of the global total, according to data published by India’s Ministry of Ports, Shipping and Waterways.

Indian labor is especially appealing for Iranian companies because U.S. sanctions on Iran have made it difficult to hire workers from many other counties, said Andy Bowerman, regional director for the Middle East and South Asia at the Mission to Seafarers, a charity. “There is a close relationship between Iran and India, and therefore it is quite attractive in terms of securing visas,” he said.

Moreover, he said, “there are a lot of desperate people who will take a contract that they may or may not know has some risk to it.”

The pipeline for these migrant workers comprises recruitment agents in both India and Iran in addition to Iranian shipping firms, seafarers said. Those interviewed said they had paid between $2,019 and $6,732 to secure their jobs. Almost all were starting their careers and seeking experience needed to secure more-lucrative jobs.

“Families want their sons to get out of poverty and earn something better, so they put all their resources in, sell off their land and farms, to give to the recruitment agent,” said Chirag Bahri, director of the Indian division of the International Seafarers’ Welfare and Assistance Network (ISWAN).

Amitabh Kumar, the Indian government’s director general of shipping, said that most of these seafarers appear to have traveled abroad as “undocumented recruitments” and that it is difficult to provide an exact number of men involved. In addition to those men who are falsely told their work will be based outside Iran, there are some seafarers who knew they were headed to the Islamic republic but say they were still taken aback by the working conditions they found.

Neither Iran’s Ports and Maritime Organization nor the Shipping Association of Iran responded to requests for comment.

Almost all the seafarers interviewed said they were denied adequate food and suffered regular attacks of hunger and subsequent weight loss.

“I faced a problem with food. I asked for food from ships nearby if I didn’t have lunch. If I asked for one bread or two eggs, they gave them to me,” said Yaseen Sha, 32, who said he returned home to India in July after spending 19 months in Iran without pay.

Some seafarers reported they were put to work aboard Iranian-flagged vessels that transport narcotics.

Anand Maity, 28, from Kolkata, for instance, said he had been working in the kitchen of a tugboat sailing from Djibouti to Iran and was unaware that drugs were on board before a stash of heroin was discovered two years ago by the Iranian coast guard. He and seven other crew members were arrested. He said he spent 18 months in Tehran’s Evin prison before being released in June. “I try to forget that time,” Maity said. “I don’t want to remember.”

Several men recalled getting caught up in other types of illicit commerce.

Jameel Akhtar, 29, from Mumbai, was among a number of seafarers who told of working on vessels smuggling fuel and other Iranian goods covered by U.S. sanctions.

After his tanker was caught transporting Iranian fuel in late 2020, Akhtar said, it was detained by authorities from the United Arab Emirates and remained anchored in port for months.

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, he recalled. The crew was held hostage while the tanker was sailed to Bandar Abbas, Iran. They were then released and assisted by the Indian Embassy to fly home.

An official report on the incident, published by investigators from the maritime administration of Dominica, the Caribbean country where the vessel was flagged, said Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps was likely responsible. Iran’s Foreign Ministry did not respond to a request for comment.

Seafarers interviewed in India said they ultimately returned home with little if any money to show for their work, as well as traumatized by their experience with Iranian shipping companies, but they remained unwilling to give up their dreams of working at sea.

Pandit is searching for a job but says he will never return to Iran. “The shipping companies are total frauds,” he said. “These are big men. They don’t understand the misery experienced by the poor.”