Your Saturday Listen: Talk – Action = 0


Shwe Tun Aung

We’re back from the ITF MRT in Montreal fully energized, having sharpened our campaigning skills and our commitment to solidarity in action. Our biggest lesson? To quote Canadian punk legend Joe Keithley of DOA, talk minus action equals zero.

During the week in Montreal, labour activists from around the world were put to work in lively participatory sessions meant to “agitate, educate and organize”. Sometimes the “agitation” is as simple as one heartfelt story that says everything about how the effort to support transport workers can make a real difference.

We’ve got one of those stories for you this week.

In Montreal, we invited The Docker Podcast team to plug in to a live session on how we can harness our own unique skills to further the many worthwhile campaigns underway, identify new struggles and take effective action. And then we had them record the dark and dramatic words of Brother Shwe Tun Aung, who we have written about before. The podcast captures Shwe’s own story of his grim life as a Burmese seafarer — and his lonely struggle as a man without a country, ultimately saved by perseverance and solidarity.

Shwe repeated his story four times to sessions that day. “Compelling” doesn’t begin to describe his words. In some sessions, activists rose and gave him a standing ovation; in other sessions, they were moved to tears.

ITF Canada Coordinator Peter Lahay, who has known Shwe for 20 years and was a participant in some of the events Shwe described, remarked: “I’ve known Shwe for a long time. Together, along with others, we kept the flame flickering for Burmese seafarers’ rights for many years. But even I have not heard all the gruesome details of what Shwe has lived through. I don’t know anyone who would not be shaken by his story.”

Our solidarity with Shwe and IFOMS, the new Burmese seafarers union, remains strong. This week, Vince Giannopoulos, the ITF’s inspector for the Great Lakes/St. Lawrence region, and Transport Canada stopped and detained the Marshall Island-flagged Merlin in Sept-Isles for non-payment of overtime wages to the Burmese crew. Nearly $12,000 US was recovered and returned to the lower ranked crew. It’s always a special moment when we assist Burmese seafarers. Just two short years ago, it was illegal for them to accept the assistance of international trade unions when they’d been robbed of wages. Shwe’s story is the story of how all that changed.

So settle in for the next 40 minutes for the details of his struggle, told in his own voice. You mind is about to be blown.

You can find the podcast here.



Your Saturday Listen: Wrestling back the gains of our grandparents

miners_strike_1984Like a lot of maritime trade unionists, we’re packing our bags and heading for the ITF Maritime Roundtable in Montreal. This week’s Saturday Listen invites you to think about one of the big problems we’ll be wrestling with.

Start here: In North America, the working class squeezed a first round of big gains from employers and governments after the great depression, between the two world wars, in what was known loosely as the New Deal (1933-34).

Then consider this: Beginning in 1945, after the end of the Second World War, workers began to gain more broadly. Pay and conditions in Europe and North America continued an upward trajectory throughtout the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s. And then bosses, governments and the establishment mounted a massive push back. Throughout the developed world, workers and their trade unions were challenged — and sometimes smashed. Think about the Reagan/Thatcher years, when tens of thousands of air-traffic controllers were sacked in the US, while in Britain, Thatcher took on miners, pressmen, seafarers and dockers.

Our point is not to catalogue the incredible assault on workers’ conditions over the past 30 years, but to set the scene for this episode of The Docker Podcast. In it, the Podcast team speak with Zach Pattin from ILWU Local 23 in Tacoma and Kyle McGinn from the MUA. The were gathered in Tacoma to mark the struggles of earlier generations and to analyse where workers stand now — and what they’ll need to do to wrestle back some of the conditions won by their grandparents and lost during their parents’ working lives.

It’s the same analysis we’re doing in Montreal this week as we meet to renew ties of solidarity and to plan the critical campaigns that are built on it. We’ll let you know how it goes. Meantime, enjoy the podcast. Share it, and share the conversation.

And don’t forget, it’s not too late to get in on our contest!

Shipowners are gnawing at us. We’re biting back next week.


It’s never been clearer that dockworkers and seafarers labour on the front lines of globalization. It’s equally clear that much of the shipping industry — through lack of discipline, lack of regulation and eternal and blindly optimistic greed — is now teetering on the brink of insolvency. Everywhere transport-trade unionists look, we see employers trying to stop the hemorrhaging — most often on the backs of workers. The most cynical of corporations are actually seizing the moment to regroup and to redouble their assaults on workers.

For all workers, the answer is to join hands and resist with equal determination.

The ITF is leading that movement. Canada will host the federation’s Maritime Round Table in Montreal Sept. 20 – 23rd. This major international maritime event, organized in the form of a roundtable seminar, is held once every four years and aims to support and further the development of the next generation of maritime labour leadership.

This year, the four days will be dedicated to helping maritime union activists identify, develop and undertake campaigns in support of their own memberships — and to make meaningful contributions to global maritime solidarity.

We’re gathering under grim skies next week.

Memories of the financial collapse of 2008 are still fresh in workers’ minds, and the ongoing failure of Hanjin looms large over us. The financial collapse of the South Korean shipping giant serves to highlight the deep problems of a shipping industry crippled by over-capacity and too little cargo. Workers are always the most vulnerable party in such failures, and we meet in Montreal in common cause with the seafarers who crew Hanjin’s fleet. The solidarity of the ITF and its affiliated unions is the first, and sometimes only, line of defence for those workers and the families they leave behind.

Against this backdrop, more than 150 delegates will attend an inclusive and interactive seminar. Canada’s ITF inspectors and our two main campaigning unions — the Seafarers International Union of Canada and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union Canada — will play host to the delegates, as well as dozens of maritime union leaders and ITF staff.

Our Canadian inspectors and unions are taking their responsibilities seriously.

All three Canadian ITF inspectors are attending as facilitators and each of us will bring our practical experience to forums and workshops. Our Canadian unions have played a massive role in organizing the gathering — especially SIU of Canada, which as the home union based in Montreal has shouldered the burden of organizing everything from support letters for delegate visas to the venue itself, and planning for the outside activities that generally surround our seminars. All of this is enormous work, and we give them a tip of the cap.

The ILWU Canada is pitching in with its own special initiative on Sept. 21 with an evening event that will share lessons learned in two years of steady work to revitalize activism in the union — and a blueprint for others to take home and customize. The session will include a presentation on the evolution of the ILWU’s young workers movement and an undoubtedly lively live recording session of The Docker Podcast.

As part of the presentation, the young workers have launched a social-media campaign and photo contest for delegates to the MRT. We liked the idea so much we’re opening it up to all of our readers. Delegates are being encourage to print off the poster found here, sign their name in big, readable letters — and then take a creative photo of themselves holding up the poster. The photo should be posted on social-media platforms using the hashtag #iampartofthemovement. The best delegate photo will receive a gift from the ILWU Canada.

We at the ITF Canada are spreading the solidarity joy by encouraging all our readers to do the same. Non-delegates will be eligible to win a special prize from us. All you have to do is add the hashtag #ITFCanada to your post as well.

You can learn more about the roundtable here. It’s going to be an awesome event, and we’ll be reporting back to you on it when it’s over.


Labour Day: Celebrating success, leaning in to the struggle


Labour Day celebrations feel bittersweet for us this weekend. There’s much joy in honouring the rights that workers have struggled to win in Canada, given the high cost they’ve paid for them. But it’s a sombre celebration when on our own West Coast — and around world — maritime workers are caught up in the bankruptcy of shipping giant Hanjin.

All of us have seen the troubling headlines about the South Korean company’s financial collapse. In Canada — alongside at Deltaport in Vancouver and at anchorage in Prince Rupert — crew of two of the 140 or so affected ships were caught up in the mess.

For all of the apparently arcane financial details, the bankruptcy is at heart uncomplicated: depressed freight rates and too many ships. It’s a man-made problem. Greedy shipowners overbuilt and relentless financiers aided them in their race to the bottom. In a nutshell, it’s capitalism at its finest.

What the collapse meant is that around the world, seafarers aboard Hanjin’s container ships, owned or chartered by an already troubled company, woke up last week to grim news: Their employer had gone bust, they might or might not get paid, and they might or might not be flown home. Their wages might come one day, but that day might be months away and might come only after a long fight for the money. In the meantime, families waiting at home for allotments to cover rent, grocery and school bills might go without cash too.

At worst, workers knew they faced the possibility of abandonment.

Abandonment happens all too often in Canada. And it is a disgrace. Croatian and Greek crew of the Navi Wind were abandoned for weeks in Argentia in the bitter depths of a Newfoundland winter until Gerard Bradbury, then our Atlantic inspector, helped win them $100,000 in back pay. Twelve Turkish seafarers on the Phoenix Sun were marooned in Sorel, Que., when the ship’s owner refused to pay for repairs; it took the ITF’s St.Lawrence/Great Lakes inspector Vince Giannopoulos to organize the support to fly them home. The 25 Indian crew of the Atlantis Two were abandoned in Vancouver when they arrived to load $4 million in potash and the ship was detained for $400,000 worth of structural repairs that the owners refused to pay for. ITF Canadian coordinator Peter Lahay eventually pried loose their $300,000 in backpay in a court case a year later. Just this week, 20 Chinese crew aboard the Five Stars Fujian, abandoned three weeks ago without pay and in need of food at anchor off the Port of Gladstone in Australia, were finally awarded back wages with the help of ITF inspector Sarah McGuire.

This Monday, Canadians are celebrating the rights that workers here fought hard to secure. Seafarers aboard Hanjin’s fleet have extensive rights, equally hard-won. They’re covered by collective bargaining agreements backed up by an international convention, the Maritime Labour Convention. (In fact, the most recently negotiated amendment to the MLC is a requirement that shipowners have abandonment insurance). Seafarers’ rights were won through organized and structured flag-of-convenience campaigns run by maritime trade unions around the globe, backstopped by strong dockers unions and the solidarity they extended.

We’ll be celebrating those victories won by seafarers and the 140 ITF inspectors around the world who organize ships into the agreements that protect workers — and enforce them once they’re in place.

But we’ll be celebrating in the shadow of the lesson of Hanjin: that there is no certainty in capitalism. Our present economic system doesn’t serve everyone’s interests. Hanjin’s executives may sail away with their bonuses, but workers, their families and their communities have not been served.

Hanjin’s troubles will take weeks, maybe months, to resolve. The repercussions make take years to rattle through the industry. We will have more to say on this in days to come.

For now, we wish workers everywhere a moment of peace this Labour Day. Today, we salute and honour everyone who labours for a living, and especially those who at such great personal cost move the world’s goods, power our economies and make possible the world’s wealth.

We will continue to stand in solidarity with you, brothers and sisters.


Your Saturday Listen: Solidarity is always the message


Steve Cotton, Dockers Podcast

Steve Cotton talks with Podcasters Mike and Dan at an ILWU convention in Hawaii, 2015.

For your Saturday Listen on this Labour Day weekend in Canada, we dug back into the archives of The Docker Podcast for this compelling chat with ITF General Secretary Steve Cotton.

We’re serving this up as the week’s Listen for a couple of reasons.

It’s a big shoutout to the Dockers Podcast team of Dan Kask, Mike Mayer and Mike Scopazo, all members of ILWU 502. More recently, Local 502 casual member Stephanie Dobler has joined the gang. In this podcast, Cotton and the crew chew over the ITF’s dynamic new direction and its global campaigns. And they draw a roadmap for building a strong international trade union movement and using new mediums to communicate with a new generation of members. The Podcast team, who are based in BC, will be taking their roadshow to the  ITF Maritime Roundtable in Montreal this month. Given their sass, solidarity and experience in organizing real solidarity for workers in struggle, we know they’ll play a big, beautiful and rowdy role at the roundtable gathering.

We also hope this podcast with Brother Cotton will remind transportation workers where the big struggles are, where we need to take the labour movement —  and how all of this fits into the local and global agenda for workers.

A big Labour Day salute to Dan, Mike, Mike and Stephanie for their part in building solidarity in Canada over  the past year, and to Steve Cotton for his role in rebuilding and strengthening the ITF structures so critical to organizing and delivering global solidarity.

You can hear the podcast here.

We’re back on deck

It’s September. And we’re back blogging after a busy summer helping with training and solidarity work, and assisting seafarers who were injured or hadn’t been paid or were trapped aboard by owners too cheap to fly them home as their contracts ended.

Look for a lively fall offering from the ITF’s Canadian inspectors team.

The three of us travel this month to Montreal for the Maritime Roundtable 2016. That’s where activists and upcoming leaders from the world’s maritime labour family will meet to share ideas on organizing and campaigning and prosecuting our Flag of Convenience campaign on behalf of seafarers. Canadian maritime unions are delighted to be welcoming international delegates with such shining activist backgrounds in solidarity work. Our own inspectors — Karl Risser, Vince Giannopoulos and Peter Lahay — are looking forward to working with them, and delegates should feel free to tap us for anything at all they need during their stay.

We’ll be meeting against the grim backdrop of the Hanjin bankruptcy, something we’ll be addressing in later posts. The situation is likely to take some time to resolve; look for us to weigh in as it does.

We’ll also be introducing our entire team of inspectors soon, now that we’ve all settled into our work. Our time on the gangways has only strengthened our resolve to lean in to the job of assisting the workers who move the world’s economy, often at a considerable personal cost.

And of course we’ll be reporting in on cases across the country as they arise.

It’s nice to be back in touch.

Seafaring fathers: a long way from home on a bittersweet day


Today, on Father’s Day in Canada, we have a case that stands as a salute to seafaring fathers everywhere, written by ITF Canada Coordinator Peter Lahay, who dedicates the post to his own dad. William Peter Lahay served aboard BC’s ferries, and later as a cook aboard West Coast tugs. Peter was at sea himself when he received a call saying his father had passed away. Peter writes:

Yesterday, I woke up to an email from a desperate Filipino seafarer aboard the Cyprus-flagged Paraskevi, a Greek-owned bulk carrier that’s alongside the Fraser Surrey docks in Vancouver. His father died on May 31st and he had been begging for weeks to get off the ship to fly home, comfort his family, pay his respects and bury his dad. The shipowners were claiming they had been trying to get him home, initially from Hawaii and now from his latest port of call, but had been unable to get a visa for his replacement. The email I opened when I woke up Saturday was his plea to the ITF for help.

He had been waiting 20 long days at that point to bury his father. I knew what had to be done, and I did it. I’ll spare the details, but can report that the company is no longer concerned about getting the man’s replacement onboard. They are concerned that we will take action if the man is not flown home.

He leaves today.

I will think of him this Father’s Day as I sit down to lunch with my own kids, and as I salute my own dad.

I’m posting some of the email chain from the case here, with details removed for privacy. It’s a glimpse into one part of the cost that seafarers, away from home for births and deaths and most of the celebrations that the rest of us enjoy, pay for their work in moving the world’s goods.


 Sent: 18 June 2016 01:39

To: Peter Lahay; Vincent Giannopoulos; Karl Risser
Subject: Request for Disembarkation due to death of my beloved father
Dear Sirs:

A pleasant day to you!

I am Electrician (name deleted), a Filipino residing in Philippines, presently onboard the MV Paraskevi (IMO:9254111), we are now in Fraser Vancouver Canada loading grains and our departure will be on June 19 sailing to Alliance Vancouver Canada loading again grains for 3 days then depart to china for discharging.

Sir I tried to communicate with you to hope that maybe you could help me or give me some advice because now I don’t no what to do and I’m really confuse and have a lot of worries. Anyway, my beloved father died last May 31 while the vessel is in Hawaii USA and on the next day I made a letter sent to the principal requesting for an emergency and immediate repatriation signed by both captain and chief engr. A constant communication and follow up calls (via telephone and vessel’s satellite phone) has been made by myself and member of my family to the manning agency in Manila Philippines regarding my reliever and repatriation. The repatriation in Hawaii was not materialize because as explained by the principal that time is extremely limited to find my reliever with US visa as well as I don’t have a Visa but I understand that this is beyond principal’s control and efforts, however, the principal advise me in writing that they are obliged to postpone my repatriation in next port (which is Fraser Vancouver Canada). The vessel left Hawaii last June 7 and arrived in Fraser on June 15. However, for your information only, last June 5, (just to remind the principal of my intention to go home and to re-emphasize to them again that  my family is waiting for my arrival to set the schedule of burial of my beloved father), I wrote another letter requesting for repatriation in Canada. A follow up calls to Manila office has been constantly made.
On June 9, I learned from Manila office that they already had an approved reliever pending and waiting for the advise/approval from principal to proceed for the application of Canadian visa. As per Manila office advise, visa processing is 7 working days. I was so disappointed to know that it took few days to received principal’s approval to proceed with visa application. Only last June 15 that my reliever applied for visa which I think that it’s too tight and its late to catch up vessel’s departure in Alliance Canada (ETD: June 22). Death of an immediate member of family, is I believe, considered as an emergency and urgent matters. Due to urgency, I was really expecting that I will be repatriated right away upon our arrival here in Fraser last June 15, but to my dismay I really wonder why only when we arrived here that’s the time they had process the visa wherein there was enough time to process it earlier. With this, I think that they didn’t pay attention and no urgency at all or maybe there was lapses on their side which is so discouraging on my part because of my situation.

I am worried and afraid that repatriation here in Canada may not be realistic because of visa issue. This time I had no other choice and option in mind, so, in that same day I speak sincerely to chief engr and get his approval to disembark here with or without my reliever . I explained to chief engr how difficult is my situation while my entire family and my beloved father is still waiting and hoping to be home ASAP. Chief engr is very supportive for my request to disembark  and I made a letter of disembarkation (dated June 15, signed by captain and chief engr) sent to the principal. In my letter, I begged for their kindest approval.  I am not satisfied with the response from the principal because they still stick to arrange repatriation here in Canada depending on the visa of my reliever and they don’t even give tentative date as to when. So this is hanging and pending…. And I sensed lack of support from the principal…my morale is so down…

Sir please I need your advice on how to handle this properly, my intention is to go home ASAP, I could no longer afford to wait another couple of days. Sir can I still disembark here in Fraser? What about my documents, is captain oblige to return my docs? Will the agent or principal assist me when I disembark? What if nobody will assist? What about the repatriation cost who will shoulder?
Anticipating my heartfelt thanks for your prompt advice, assistance and help.
Hoping to recieve your reply so soon…. and I really appreciate within tomorrow…
God bless and more power to you!
P.S. I will send to you in separate email a photos of my letters, reply from principal and my contract with detailed informations just in case you will need as reference.
Respectfully yours,
(name deleted)

After offering condolences, letting the seafarer know he would investigate and take next steps, Peter was able to board the ship by shortly after 9 a.m. the same day to let the man know the company had agreed to fly him home the next day.

His email from Sunday morning:

Date: 06-19-2016 02:09 (GMT-05:00)
To: Peter Lahay
Cc: Vincent Giannopoulos, Karl Risser
Subject: Re: Request for Disembarkation due to death of my beloved father

Dear Sir Peter,

I was stunned and surprised by your utmost attention and prompt action. I almost can’t believe to see you personally here in the vessel this morning and assured me of your full support. Sincerely speaking, upon seeing you I really feel a savior came… because I am in a very bad situation that I thought my employer can help me but unfortunately it became worsen in this time of sadness.

Anyway, sir I just want to express a million thanx to you…most especially the ITF organization!

By the way, I already have with me the airplane e-ticket and my flight schedule going to Philippines will be on June 20 and arrive on June 21.

I am now rest assured that I can pay my last respect to my beloved father and see him one last time. The schedule of burial is now being set 2 days after my arrival.

Sir I will advise you once I arrive home.

Once again, thank you so much and more power to you!

Very sincerely yours,
(name deleted)
MV Paraskevi

Hell no. We won’t go along with selling off our jobs.

The gloves are off.

Canada’s maritimes unions have served notice to the government that we will not agree to selling off our jobs to flag-of-convenience owners. To letting our industry’s global bottom-dwellers take over trade between Canadian ports. We will not agree to watch seafarers across Canada hand their remaining jobs to shipowners ruled by appalling bottom lines — owners more interested in moving goods in and out of Canada by exploiting foreign seafarers who work for as little as $3 an hour, instead of employing the Canadians who now man our coastal trading vessels and passenger ferries and stand a dedicated watch over the safety of the workplaces and ships and the environmental integrity of our waters.

Hell, no, we won’t go. Not there.

Maritime unions are in Ottawa this week for biannual meetings with Transport Canada — gatherings that are supposed to offer a chance for government to consult with industry and labour as it develops the policies and regulations that shape and govern the country’s critical transportation sector.

Take a listen to just part of what we told them.

Listen as Peter Lahay, the ITF’s Canadian coordinator, rips a strip off a process that requires unions to spend scarce time and money on travelling to Ottawa so that policy mandarins can tick their “duly consulted” boxes — and then regulate us out of existence.

Vince Giannopoulos, our inspector for the Great Lakes/St. Lawrence region, speaks too. Vince is a young worker, a seafarer and a labour rep, and it was moving to watch him speak some labour truth to bureaucratic power. Listen as Vince argues that the best way to address concerns about safety, security and the environment is to employ the very workers who have a stake in the waters they sail.

Lahay takes on the issue of “regulatory capture” — the mess that arises when regulators are in the pocket of a regulation-averse industry. It has happened right across our transportation industry, and it stinks.

And he bare-knuckles the new trade deals and bills that would open up the sale of Canadian shipboard jobs on all of our coasts — starting with freight and ending with ferries. That would open up dredging contracts. That would obliterate the historic role that Canadians have played in moving our goods safely, cleanly and with some measure of economic justice for the workers who head out to sea daily to get the job done.

We’ve been told before that “come hell or high water,” government will move in the direction it has set. This week, we served notice that they have no idea what hell they are unleashing. Paul Martin, an earlier Liberal prime minister, was outed by organized labour for his shameful actions as a flag-of-convenience operator, and the shaming dogged him throughout his career. Justin Trudeau should expect no less.

As for the Transport Canada policy makers planning this nasty business, they have failed to protect the country. They have not done their jobs. Perhaps it is time to contract their work out. To Panama.

Our thanks to Karl Risser, the ITF’s inspector for Canada’s Atlantic region, for the video. Karl has a great eye and is always there to capture a solidarity moment.


Your Saturday Listen: We cover the waterfront. Including beer.


ITF Canadian coordinator Peter Lahay (second from left) joins the Docker Podcast team — Mike Scopazzo, Dan Kask and Mike Mayer — to model their new solidarity t-shirts.

Three committed young labour activists sit down to talk with ITF Canadian Coordinator Peter Lahay. You’ll never guess what happens next. Hint: It includes Polish Solidarnosc workers, Arab trade-union struggles — and making wise beer choices.

You can enjoy the latest Docker Podcast podcast here.


ITF rolls on a contract, crew rolls off with better wages and working conditions


ITF Atlantic inspector Karl Risser (centre) reunites with crew of MV Goodwood in Port of Halifax, January 2016.

ITF Atlantic inspector Karl Risser (centre) reunites with crew of MV Goodwood in Port of Halifax, January 2016.

We’ve got a quick dispatch from Halifax, and it’s the kind of news that makes us feel good about our work – and about the real-life value of solidarity.

This week, the ro-ro vessel MV Goodwood swung through Halifax on her semi-regular liner service. Karl Risser, our new Atlantic region inspector, wanted to pass along an observation on how good it felt to see the return of a crew who just months earlier sailed into port without the protection of a labour agreement – and now were back with higher wages, better leave pay and better insurance for injury or loss of life.

For ro-ro crew, who sail under risky conditions and face injuries daily, that last part means a lot. The ships have a unique design that poses challenges: slight cargo shifts can rattle their stability, low freeboard can leave doors submerged when they list, and the lack of bulkheads lessens watertight integrity and means fires can spread faster.

The Goodwood is owned in Japan and controlled by Zodiac Maritime Ltd., a company known all too well to ITF inspectors. Late last November, during an ITF labour inspection in the Port of Halifax, we determined that the ship was not covered by a valid collective bargaining agreement (CBA). That’s when Risser and our retiring Atlantic region inspector Gerard Bradbury swung into action.

They began pressing the owners and charterers for a new CBA. Working along the ship’s trading route with our German inspectors and with the ITF Agreements Unit in London, we signed the vessel on Dec. 21, just in time for Christmas.

The new CBA means significantly improved working conditions and salary, especially for the lower-ranking crew. And it showed on their faces when they sailed back into port this week. They were happy.

So Karl wanted to offer big thanks from them to Gerard Bradbury and to Susan Linderkamp of Ver.Di, the German general workers union, for their hand in the increased benefits and wages. When Karl asked about their home union, he says many identified themselves as proud members of the Marine Transport Workers Trade Union of Ukraine.

Karl, who’s always proud to point out he started out with the Marine Workers Federation, reminded us of that small moment of connection we feel when we stand together as workers and identify ourselves as part of a solidarity movement in our own lands. Saying it out loud, worker to worker, means something. So it was good to hear them speak proudly of their Ukrainian ties.

It was equally good to have helped secure them an agreement. Working aboard ro-ros is a risky way to put food on the table, as news from the shipping world this week reminded us all.

Anyone who follows maritime events will be familiar with the recent foundering of the MV Modern Express, a Panama-flagged FoC ship.

As of today, salvage plans were under way to recover the stricken vessel as it continued to drift without crew in the Bay of Biscay off the west coast of France. The crew of 22 were rescued Tuesday after cargo of timber and construction machinery shifted and left the ship listing by 40 degrees in high seas and gale-force winds.

Because the Modern Express is covered by an ITF CBA, the evacuated crew will continue on wages, and have insurance to cover lost personal belongings and any injuries suffered.

So it’s been a week full of great reminders — on the value of bargaining together for decent working conditions, and on our brothers and sisters at sea who make it all worthwhile.

The MV Goodwood, an F0C ro-ro vessel, conducts cargo operations during a regular call in the Port of Halifax.

The MV Goodwood, an F0C ro-ro vessel, conducts cargo operations during a regular call in the Port of Halifax.

Your Saturday Listen: Here’s a resolution for 2016. Pay your damned crew fairly. And stop threatening them.

It’s the first Saturday of the new year. It’s tempting to write something cliche like “we’re rededicating ourselves” to the battle for justice for seafarers — but the truth is, we’re dedicated to doing this every day,  and the job never really ends.

Much of our day on New Year’s Eve in Vancouver, for example, was spent aboard the MV Bereket, a Panama-flagged, Turkish-owned bulk carrier that was loading agricultural products at the Fraser-Surrey docks for delivery to Cuba. Onboard, we found that the Turkish crew were working under a detailed employment agreement that applied to all of them. Each of the 20-odd clauses were written by the shipowner — and were written entirely in favour of the shipowner. We are now attempting to sign a collective-bargaining agreement for that ship that would bring equity to the two sides. While we work at that, the vessel has been detained by Transport Canada for various safety deficiencies.

In some ways, it’s a classic example as we kick off a new year of our blog. Seafarers are among the world’s most marginalized and isolated workers; they are regularly cheated of wages, denied proper food and working and living conditions and medical treatment — or release from work when their contracted time-period has expired. Grinding workers through an unjust, one-sided contract sums up the contempt that the bottom-feeders in the shipping world hold for their employees.

The Bereket was just one example from Vancouver in the past week.

The MV Harm (no, you can’t make this stuff up) is a German-owned, Liberian-flagged bulk carrier that took on a load of India-bound coal in Vancouver. Crew complaints included salaries below industry standard, not enough to eat, no night lunches for the watchkeeping crews and being forced to pay for work gloves, bottled water, laundry soap and hand soap. They also said they were not being paid the industry-standard pay for cleaning the six cargo holds, which on that ship are each big enough to play a competitive soccer match in. As a final insult, the Romanian captain had ordered crew not to let any of our ITF inspectors aboard, despite the fact the Maritime Labour Convention guarantees them the right to representation. Our request to rectify the issues has been met with total silence from Transeste Schiffahrt, the German owner.

For this week’s Saturday Listen, we’re posting a video of a fairly recent TVOntario show that took a look at “sea blindness” —  a reference to the fact that shipping, which delivers almost all of the goods that modern societies depend on, remains relatively invisible to the public.

Have a listen. It’s a wide-ranging discussion and it features some interesting people, including Rose George, author of Ninety Percent of Everything, and Peter Hinchliffe, secretary general of the International Chamber of Shipping. You’ll hear a lot of good things said about the industry: its importance, its improved environmental practices, its efforts to address piracy  and so on. You’ll also hear panelist Peter Lahay, the ITF’s Canadian coordinator, burst some of those bubbles.

As Peter makes clear, the shipping industry will continue to face harsh criticism and deep public suspicion as long as shipowners continue to behave badly — for example, by writing labour agreements for crew that favour their own economic interests. Even more importantly — as we will talk more about this year — as long as shipowners continue to threaten crew with blacklisting if they complain about harsh conditions, the industry will deserve the black eye that it tends to get from the public.

Enjoy the video. And  welcome back to a new year with The ITF in Canada.

Brother Gerard Bradbury has been repatriated. We wish him fair winds on the back nine

Gerard and partner Kelly at a solidarity rally in Panama during inspectors' training in fall of 2015. The rally was held in support of Panama canal workers.

Gerard and partner Kelly at a solidarity rally in Panama during inspectors’ training in fall of 2015. The rally was held in support of Panama canal workers.

We’re wrapping up 2015 with mixed emotions.

Gerard Bradbury, our savvy and hard-working working inspector for the Atlantic region, sails off into his post-ITF life in January. We couldn’t be happier for Gerard and his partner, Kelly. They deserve some time to enjoy life. But we’ll miss him. From the first day of his career as an ITF inspector until his final day this week, Gerard has been a fighter. The FoC campaign is not for the faint of heart. It takes a certain determination to beat the overwhelming odds stacked against you in most of the cases we run in defence and support of seafarers – and Gerard has always been up for the battle.

Life for seafarers aboard a ship is not always equal. Often, it is the lower ranks who are cheated or who suffer the most. Gerard has always made a special effort to ensure that the ordinary seamen, wipers, trainees, cooks, stewards and cadets were not being ripped off on their pay — and especially on unpaid overtime. Peter Lahay, the ITF’s Canadian coordinator, has often joked that junior crew owe Gerard a special gratitude for his endless belligerence on their behalf. They wouldn’t know this about him, but we do.

So his departure is bittersweet.

On the sweet side of this bittersweet moment, we’re delighted that Karl Risser picked up the Atlantic baton a couple of months back and has been working with Gerard to get up his first gangways and become familiar with the job, the campaign and the ITF family. Karl is a longtime trade-union activist and leader on the east coast (more about that next year as we profile our Canadian inspectors) and we’re confident that seafarers will find him a great representative. Gerard had wanted to retire a year ago, but Peter talked him into staying while our Great Lakes/St. Lawrence inspector Vince Giannopoulos gained more experience. For that, for his work with Karl, we are extremely grateful to Gerard. He has played a massive role in the renewal of the ITF Canada team.

Gerard is a man of remarkably few words when it comes to talking about his own role in helping represent some of the world’s most marginalized and isolated workers. He is signing off with the same approach he used for 10 years: a quiet, self-effacing but laser-focused determination that the seafarers who help create and move the world’s wealth be treated with respect.

As Gerard was busy preparing to set sail this month, we did manage to pry a few memories free. We thought that all of you who have had the pleasure of working with him might enjoy them too:

Our inspectors come from varied backgrounds. How did you get into this job?

I came from Marine Atlantic, which runs the freight and passenger ferries between Nova Scotia and Newfoundland and Labrador. John Parsons was the previous inspector; he also came through Marine Atlantic and he had been telling me about the job for a couple of years previous, and had asked me if I’d be interested in it. And I had met Peter Lahay, the ITF’s Canadian coordinator, at a BC Ferry and Marine Workers Union convention in Nanaimo, B.C.; he explained a lot about the job as well. And then I got a call from the national financial secretary for the Canadian Auto Workers to ask if I would have an interest, so that’s how it came about that I ended up in the position.

What were you doing at Marine Atlantic?

I had gone from Canadian National, the rail line, to Marine Atlantic, doing whatever I could do to keep ahead of the layoffs. I worked in the office, and then other jobs, and then I worked aboard the ships because the transfers ran out. I was brakeman and a conductor on the trains for years. And then I transferred aboard ships about 1980. And I went into the catering department, then transferred into the engine room, then again back to the catering department — just wherever I could go to stay ahead of layoffs, really.

So in your work, had you had much to do with the deep-sea fleet, or with foreign seafarers?

No, not really. My only contact was just the seafarers I had dealt with — and they’re all the same kind of positions wherever you go — when I became president of the union at Marine Atlantic. You represent all shipboard personnel there, from the engine room to the deck department to the catering department. Canadians work the same positions, but for a whole lot more money than what international seafarers are working for.

So you dove in. What was the training like for inspectors when you started?

The training has evolved a whole pile. When I came along nine or 10 years ago, it was basic, just teaching you how to do wage claims, more or less. Then they put you out in the field for a week, which can be intimidating. My initial training was in London, and the week I spent in the field was in France. My understanding, just from talking with people who are taking the training now, and even listening to Vince Giannopoulos, our Great Lakes/St. Lawrence inspector, who just went through training, it’s a lot different. A lot more enlightening than when I went through it. A lot more material. But in any case, if you’re new, without Peter (or your own coordinator) there to call and get help from in the first year or two, you’re basically lost. It’s two different worlds, seafaring in Canada and seafaring on these ships. It’s not the work they do; we’re all seafarers. I don’t mean that. But on an international ship, when you go aboard, when you’re looking at different collective agreements, different contracts, you find yourself doing a bit of everything.  The purser’s job, the whole deal. A purser aboard the ships I came from, they dealt with the money aspects. So you sort of find yourself doing that position in a little way aboard a ship, particularly when you’re going through wage accounts, looking for money, looking for overtime. I guess it’s not made for everybody, and it helps to have some sort of background in seafaring before you would go into it, just so you are familiar with the very basic parts and can focus on the other things you are aboard to inspect or enforce. But if you’re dedicated you can learn it.

You came from a trade-union background in Canada. How different is the labour-relations part of this job?

It’s totally different. In most cases, the captain is a servant of the company. He is not going to make any decisions or disclose any information unless he gets permission, so you’re often better off picking up the phone and calling the company guys. You call Singapore or wherever it’s at. You drag them out of bed. You don’t care what time of day it is. The difference between that and labour representation at Marine Atlantic is that there, you walk across the parking lot and bang on someone’s desk to get what it is you want. But there’s not much sense in banging on the table in front of a captain, because you’re not going to intimidate him or scare him like that. The company is going to take his side regardless of how wrong they are or how wrong he is.

How long did it take you to figure that out?

It comes pretty quickly. Some aspects of it are quite intimidating, though. Particularly in your first year or two, because you don’t know exactly where you’re going or what you’re doing.  What you do know, every time you leave a ship after a wage claim, you just have a feeling in your gut. And you think about it a lot. Did I leave anything on the table for these guys, was there anything I missed. You beat yourself up for a little bit, you go back and review it just to reassure yourself that you got everything that was there.

It must be hard to explain to another Canadian who doesn’t work in shipping that a seafarer hasn’t been paid for months for work they have already done and that you often have to argue that they should be given their wages — or that they are being told they will be kept away from home for months and months longer than they agreed to. If most Canadians were told by the boss that they weren’t being paid or that they would be locked up in their workplace with no way home for months, they would be shocked.

You sort of harden yourself to that after a while. You see these hardship cases, and you listen to the seafarers, and all you can do is everything in your power to recoup what’s rightfully theirs, whether it’s just getting on the phone to constantly dog someone, or getting support from unions or colleagues in another country — whatever it takes to get to the end goal, which is the money that these guys sweat and labour and bleed to get. And in a lot of instances don’t receive.

Starting out, the first cases must stick with you. Do you still think about them?

Yeah, but the ones that stick with me are more from recent years. Especially the abandonments. The worst was one of those Christmas abandonments. We had crew abandoned at Christmas in 2012, 2013, 2014. This is probably the first December in four years we haven’t had one. The first one was a tug called the Craig Trans. It was just godawful. It got blown in here to Halifax as it was going to do a tow job, a derelict vessel out of Montreal. I’ve never, ever, in all my years of boarding ships, seen anything as dirty. What the crew were living in, it’s unexplainable. It was just horrible. People sleeping and eating in the galley area of the ship, cockroaches running everywhere. I’d never seen so many cockroaches converged in one place. Rats running around. And these guys are living in it. It was jaw-dropping how cold it was aboard. How they did it is beyond me. Most were from Central America; this was the only job available to them, and they had to take it.

I tried and tried to get the owner to pay these guys and fly them home, because they refused to take the vessel any farther. But the owner just ignored us and it became apparent he was abandoning the vessel and its crew. The ship had absolutely no value, and we couldn’t sell it to cover wages. So we turned to the community. The Mission to Seafarers got involved. We started putting out some press releases, got the news media in through the gate at the port, got a camera on board. They couldn’t believe what they were seeing, that these guys were living in this filth. And the community came together; people started donating their air miles and so forth, to get these guys home. And at the end of the day, they did get enough together to get them home. There were some contributions of cash put together too, and these guys got a few dollars in their pockets, but it still didn’t compensate them for six to eight months of their lives.

Abandonments are awful, but so are the stories people in the rest of Canada used to hear about ships in the Atlantic, the ones about ships breaking up off the east coast in rough winters.

Yes. There was one that blew into Halifax, I believe it was supposed to load grain in Churchill, Manitoba, meaning it would have travelled through the Arctic to get to the east coast. Me and Peter started getting emails from daughter of one of the electricians. She said they were concerned about the safety of the ship, so we started tracking it. They were in a godawful North Atlantic winter storm and then the turbo-charger packed in. It meant they lost at least half the horsepower and could not keep a straight course in the storm. The Department of Defence was monitoring it with satellites. They radioed the ship to see if they needed assistance, but typical of many shipowners, they declined help. Usually it’s because they’re worried about being charged. Eventually the weather moderated and it ended up in Halifax.  Along with Transport Canada, we did an inspection. They detained the ship for a couple of weeks. It was the worst they had ever seen. It had cracks in the bulkheads. One inspector who went aboard said that if they ship had taken one more pounding, the 27 crew would have been lost at sea. The ship was that bad. The forward frames that hold the hull plating in place had caved in. If one more frame had buckled, the forward plates would have been knocked off and they all would have been goners. And to add insult to injury, the crew were owed wages. That case sticks out for me, that we probably saved lives in that case. As I said, the electrician knew the status of the ship, so you know the owner did as well — and yet those bastards sent them across the North Atlantic in the depths of winter.

So you’ve seen a little of everything – cheating on wages, crews trying to get home, crappy conditions, abandonments.

Yeah, the abandonments stick with me, though. The little details trouble you. The thing is, at the end of the day, we had two that were successful with payments, but two that weren’t. The Lyubov Orlova in St. John’s, Newfoundland, it was the worst. It was just a godawful nightmare. I try not to even think about it. All these guys, 67 of them, they were stuck on there unpaid, owed about three months’  salary when they arrived, and the few that stayed on to keep the ship running over the winter were out about six months’ pay in the  end. And it wasn’t enough the owner had stolen their wages. He even kept their tips. The tips are paid on credit cards, and he had stolen every bit of them too. It was awful, all of it. There was a young female crew member who was raped in the city of St. John’s while they were stuck there, a horrible experience and the cops barely bothered to take a report. That haunts me to this day. And then we had another one, the Navi Wind, again in Newfoundland and at Christmas. When I boarded that ship I couldn’t believe it. The crew were beat up, they were drained. I’ve never seen such pale seafarers in my life. They were bailing out the engine room for three straight days, forming a bucket brigade to keep water out of the engine room. They were in that fierce of a storm. The ship should never have sailed from St. John’s; Transport Canada authorized that ship to sail when it wasn’t fit for sea. They were shorthanded on that vessel. And I contacted them for weeks and months on end about that ship, with safety and wage concerns. They said wages were paid and there were no safety concerns. When I finally went aboard, after it had left and nearly sunk, we found that crew really had not been paid in seven months – although Transport Canada had said they were. And then when the ship blew back in, they detained it for 26 violations. And many of those things were wrong when the ship had sailed.

In cases like that, I guess there’s not a lot to feel good about, except that you can get something back for the crew?

Well the good thing about that one is that we threatened the company with a lawyer, and the lawyer started to undertake the case, to arrest the cargo, and the cargo had greater value than the ship. And at the end of the day, the owner of the cargo was the one who came up with the money to pay the wages. It was over $120,000.

With all of that, then, you walk away from your job with what message for your ITF colleagues, and for the rest of the world?

To me, the campaign, the FoC campaign, was the last thing in my head. I always went aboard with the thought that I’m walking up a gangway to do a job on a personal level, to find out for crew what someone is doing to them or taking from them, or if they’re not being fed or housed or clothed properly. The campaign is last thing on my mind right then. You’re going aboard, to me anyway, for one reason. And that’s to make sure that these guys are protected in every way, shape and form under any law that’s out there. Campaign-wise, to organize a ship, in many regards in Canada, you have very little backing in the labour movement of any kind. Because in many cases, most unions in the country don’t even know what it is you do. Really, that’s the truth. So to go ask them to back up some poor son of a bitch who’s making $900 a month while they are loading the same ship that a seafarer goes out and risks his life on, it’s hard. You do what you can. You pound it through stevedores, you pound it through anybody who will listen, to explain what these guys go through. But really, there’s not much industrial action that can take place, particularly in this neck of the woods. So it’s hard.

What about the Maritime Labour Convention, has that made a difference?

Yeah, that’s the biggest tool we have here in Canada. It’s the number one tool. When you can walk aboard a ship and say to a captain, particularly if you find a deficiency, that you’re going to call Transport Canada to ask for detention of the ship for violations of safety or wages, no food on board, whatever, that is as good as any labour union coming behind you to say we’re not going to load the ship. But there is still a long ways to go, especially in this part of the country.

And yet for all the power it gives you, it sounds like the job stays the same, it’s dealing with the same problems.

The job stays the same, but now you have more power to do something about the problems, to engage the government to do something on your behalf, and on the seafarer’s behalf. It’ll always remain a cat-and-mouse game, this job. These owners are out there to save a dollar. Shipping is still in a bad way, the industry, so they’re cutting corners right now still. I think if you don’t have a plan, if you don’t have the resources to get into shipping, you shouldn’t be in it. A lot of this is people going in with I don’t know what kind of dream, or what kind of money they’re looking for, and at the end of the day, the only people to pay when things are tight or they go wrong is the crew aboard the ship, not being paid, not being fed properly, not having proper clothing, their kids not being looked after, their university bills not paid, their mortgage not paid. The crew has the same range of problems as anyone out there working.

Sounds grim. So what’s your message to the next inspector up the gangway, the guy who hasn’t walked into the worst of those conditions yet?

My advice to anyone who’s coming in here is simple: answer your phone, keep an eye on your text messages, and get your ass aboard any ship that comes in, that you can get up the gangway on. Because there’s always someone who needs your help. It’s no good driving by it and looking at it, because that is going to solve nothing.

Just be prepared. Don’t drive by the ship. Board it. Don’t gloss it over, because when you board these ships, there’s nothing that can be glossed over. If you’re doing your job and checking provisions and you’re checking everything that you should as an inspector, there’s always something to find and there’s always something to report.

But my biggest advice is to contact Peter, or your own coordinator, with any concern; keep them involved, even if it’s just a conversation. I couldn’t give new inspectors better advice, seriously. Do your job and ask for help. There’s more to this than just driving around the port. You can’t be a barker. There’s more to this job than just being loud. Do your work. It’s the loneliest job in the world, you work on your own in that port, but there is advice and somebody who understands what it is you’re doing and what you’re trying to figure out, and you need to get them on the phone regularly. They have a complete understanding of what you’re saying. Not everyone does. But your colleagues do. So call them.


We’ll hand this over now to Peter Lahay for a final word on his longtime friend. Peter writes:

“Nothing sums it up better than to point out that right up until the end, Gerard was fighting for crew who had been exploited. This month, on a vessel called the Green Dale, he found crew described as cadets working 300 hours a month and being paid just $100. The company did its best to explain it away — and even sought assistance to have Gerard back off. But as always, Gerard just plowed ahead and got a good settlement for those guys. He was just days from retirement. He didn’t need to bother. But he did.

Aside from his commitment to other workers, the other thing that stands out is how well Gerard was liked by his fellow inspectors from all over the world — and by the trade unionists from Canada’s marine unions that attend the ITF Canadian Coordinating Committee meetings twice yearly in Ottawa. People did more than like Gerard. They respected him. And his work. It’s the reason that he was named Trade Unionist of the Year by the Nova Scotia Federation of Labour in 2015.

Gerard is just one of those guys that we all come across once in a while in life. He is hard-headed, righteous, stubborn, loyal to a fault and has a heart of pure gold. Guys like Gerard don’t really see grey very well. It’s more black and white — and those are the people that keep the rest of us focused and honest.”

To his partner Kelly McRoberts: For better or for worse, we hand Gerard back to you, full time. Good luck with that. Lol.

And to Gerard: Your friendship, strength and solidarity will never be forgotten.

Fair winds, brother.

The inspectorate

Canadian inspectors Vince Giannopoulos, Karl Risser, Gerard Bradbury and Peter Lahay at a training session in Panama, 2015. Colleagues from around the world took time out to applaud Gerard’s service to the campaign.

Gerard was honoured for his service to working people this year when the Nova Scotia Federation of Labour named him Trade Unionist of the Year.

Gerard was honoured for his long service to working people this year when the Nova Scotia Federation of Labour named him Trade Unionist of the Year.


Happy holidays to all of you, from all of us at the ITF in Canada

Karl Risser, two seafarers

Atlantic Canada ITF inspector Karl Risser, left, catches up with crew during a labour inspection on our east coast.

It’s time to make fast the good ship ITF in Canada till the new year. But first we wanted to say a heartfelt thanks for the great time we’ve had getting our blog launched, and to everyone who has read and clicked and emailed and subscribed and generally made it a whole lot of fun to put into words some of the exhilarating, inspiring, discouraging and daunting problems we face as we climb gangways daily.

We wanted to start a conversation and to create a bit of a record of the kinds of cases we tackle as we do the work of representing seafarers aboard flag-of-convenience ships. In the six months that we’ve been pecking away at this blog, we hope we’ve done both. Although a lot of time this year was spent away with teaching and training sessions, we look forward to getting back in harness in the new year. Expect to see profiles of our Canadian inspectors, updates on some of the issues we tackled and a whole new round of Saturday Listens.

As we write these words, it’s already Christmas Eve for some of our readers. In Canada, most of our Christmas goods are brought to us from overseas by the seafarers and dockworkers who move the consumer items that we pack the malls to purchase in towns and cities across our country. And they fill the warehouses full of the stuff that we order online.

So while we are tucked into our warm homes, peeling back the bright crinkly paper that wraps our gifts and the bright crinkly peel that wraps our holiday oranges, we will think about those seafarers — who are themselves thousands of miles from their homes and families during the holidays. Right now, as you read, many of them are battling the dark, stormy seas of the North Atlantic and the Great Circle route of the North Pacific.

We think it’s important to take a moment to honour the men and women of the world’s merchant fleet, who too often are forgotten and too seldom are acknowledged for their role in moving the goods we rely on.  We also thank those who help support seafarers, including the volunteers at the Missions to Seafarers in Halifax, Vancouver, Montreal,  Saint John and elsewhere.

We’ll close with a message from Karl Risser, Canada’s newest inspector. Karl, who represents the Atlantic region, passed along a short comment and some photos of his first Christmas on the job. We couldn’t say it any better ourselves, so we’re letting him speak for all of us.

Karl writes:

“With the holiday season here, I look forward to spending quality time with family and friends. We celebrate with gifts, good meals and great times together; it can sometimes seem like the best time of what is otherwise a busy year. I’m sure the same is true for most of the Canadians about to relax into a week of food and fun and downtime with loved ones.

Unfortunately, it can be hardest time of the year for seafarers, who spend anywhere from nine to a full 12 months of the year at sea. The holidays can be hard to deal with when all you can think about is the time you’re missing with loved ones. Seafarers should take enormous pride in the work they do and the incredible challenges they shoulder to support family back at home. But feeling lonely during a season of togetherness can overwhelm all that.

Seafaring is hard work. It means labouring in relative isolation for long periods, often in dangerous conditions, and all too often for employers who cheat and abuse crew. These folks deserve our help and support — especially at this time of year.

I am proud to say that in Halifax, we are working through the ITF, the local Mission to Seafarers and with our port partners to deliver holiday joy.

I seen first-hand the difference ‎we are making, and I have some great examples to share.

Our mission in Halifax prepares shoe boxes full of gifts, which has turned out to be  a great way to make seafarers feel welcomed in our port. You can see the difference it makes in the smiling faces full of joy. It says that we know they’re away from home at Christmas, that they are appreciated and remembered, and that they aren’t alone. The little boxes are small symbols that were all family, and that we care. It’s a message that’s easy, that’s important and that matters.

The mission in Saint John does a holiday gift drive as well; this year, they included letters from local school children thanking seafarers for the work they do every day. The kids recognize that most of the things we use every day are brought to us by ships — and that without the workers who run them, not a single trip would be possible. That kind of acknowledgement, especially from children the same ages as many of their own kids, goes a long way during the dark days of winter.

Finally, I take comfort in the fact that the work we do as ITF inspectors ‎to protect seafarers’ rights at work –through assisting with collective bargaining, inspections, claims and political lobbying — is making a difference in their lives. We are a worldwide force for change in shipping, and it’s change for the better.

It’s my first Christmas on the job, and I can say it feels good to have joined the family of inspectors around the globe. I wish all of my colleagues, here in Canada and in ports worldwide, a peaceful holiday. And peace as well to seafarers aboard ships everywhere. It’s a great honour to be able to represent you. Safe travels to all of you.”

Nicely said, Karl. Peaceful holiday wishes to all of you — those at home, and especially those at sea — from Canada’s ITF inspectors Gerard Bradbury, Karl Risser, Vince Giannopoulos and Peter Lahay.

Karl Risser. Gerard Bradbury

Karl (left) and Gerard receive letters of appreciation written to seafarers by schoolchildren in Saint John, NB.

Dropping anchor on Burmese oppression


Brother Shwe Tun Aung, the ITF’s Burma-born inspector, played a key role in bringing a genuinely democratic union to Burmese seafarers.

We watched today with great joy as Burmese citizens lined the streets to cast — and begin counting — ballots in what some of them called the first genuine election of their lifetime, the “dawn of their country”.

Their country holds a special place in our hearts, here at the ITF in Canada. We were away this summer for a couple of weeks helping with some solidarity training for the new independent union that Myanmar’s seafarers have set up – also a historic and democratic first.

More than that, we played a role in helping push democracy along for those seafarers and their countrymen, through our support and political work right here at home.

Today, as our Burmese brothers and sisters and their families celebrate, we can’t help but observe that Canadians continue our own celebration – of having thrown out a neo-liberal Conservative government last month, one that dedicated itself to the worst of corporate excesses and anti-democratic behaviour.

We still await signs of where our election results will take us. We hope for a return to decency and democracy. Our comrades in Myanmar are hoping for the same.

All in all, it seems like a good time to record a bit of the history of The ITF in Canada’s long association with the plight of Burmese seafarers — and with the struggle of the Burmese people for democracy. We’ll talk more later about the development of the new union.

Most of you will remember the long years of struggle for Burmese political leader Aung San Suu Kyi  as she attempted to bring democracy to the former British colony. She lived under house arrest for 15 of the 21 years between 1989 and 2010, a dark period for the country as it struggled under a military dictatorship.

The ITF and its inspectors around the world helped support Burmese seafarers for all of those years.

We conducted our work along with the Seafarers Union of Burma, which was then our affiliate, operating in exile in neighboring Thailand. During the course of that work in the 1990s, the ITF lodged a complaint against Myanmar (then and sometimes still called Burma) at the International Labour Organization. The issue was the abuse of Burmese seafarers rights. We won’t go into great detail here, except to say that the ILO sustained the ITF’s complaint and condemned Myanmar for its treatment of their citizens working aboard foreign vessels where crew were often arrested, thrown in jail and their families’ homes seized by the government simply for complaining of abuse or cheated wages. This is how Burmese seafarers were controlled and remained cheap to employ.

It was an important win for us; Burmese seafarers – about 20,000 at that time — were a significant part of the maritime industry’s workforce, and they were being taken advantage of.

We have long recognized that shipowners in search of cheap, highly compliant labour for their vessels often contract crew from countries that provide few democratic rights to their citizens and overseas workers. At the period in Myanmar’s history that we deal with in this post, the countries supplying crew who would be “ITF-proof” or “organized labour-proof” were China, Vietnam, the Maldives and Burma.

We did what we could politically in Canada as well. In November of 1997, organized labour held a massive People’s Summit tribunal to coincide with an APEC gathering in Vancouver. As part of the event, the ITF and the Canadian Labor Congress brought Koko Khaing, then the president of the exiled Seafarers Union of Burma, to Canada to testify about crimes against Burmese seafarers by international shipowners and the generals who ruled Burma under the banner of the State Law and Order and Restoration Council.

Canada’s ITF inspectors also supported Burmese seafarers where we could as we went up and down the gangways. They had all the same problems that other seafarers faced – wages, repatriation, abuse of working hours, cruel discipline practices — but no ability to complain. Given the politics of their homeland, making a complaint carried such heavy penalty for the seafarer and his family that they were forced to make a refugee claim for fear of certain imprisonment upon return to Yangon.

We have many grim stories from that time, but we will focus on just one.

For a period in 2005-06, four ships owned by a Japanese company were trading with their vessels on the west coast of Canada, loading our raw export logs. All of these ships were manned by Burmese crew and sailing under the flag of Myanmar.

On one of these ships, a young crew member named Hla Din became deathly ill. Because the company feared that crew might jump ship or make refugee claims in the U.S. or Canada, crew were not permitted shore leave. This young crew member, who was known by the captain and other crew to be sick, was not allowed to visit a doctor in either of its two ports of call along the American west coast. By the time the ship got to Vancouver, the man was gravely ill. He was still refused medical attention. Finally, the chief engineer — fearing for the worst – directly disobeyed the captain’s orders and carried the young man down the gangway in his arms, hopped into a taxi and spirited him to St. Paul’s Hospital. The man was diagnosed with kidney failure. Tests revealed that as a result of the failure to treatment an infection he had suffered, his kidneys were shutting down. Had he been treated earlier, he would have suffered no consequences, doctors said. In effect, this man was a victim of politics — and would be condemned to either death or a lifetime of dialysis. He knew that if he was returned to Myanmar, his fate was likely death. So he made a refugee claim from his hospital bed. It was left to our inspector to support his claim, and to file his claim for loss of profession.

To make a very long and complex story short, the man was successful in his claim and was kept alive by the Canadian medical system.

Peter Lahay, the ITF’s Canadian coordinator, was rightly infuriated with First Marine, the Japanese operators of these ships. Lahay told them they should take down the Mynamar flag of oppression and hoist a more palatable flag of convenience — to follow Japanese owners to their favorite FoC, Panama — or their four vessels might face a boycott in Canadian ports. The owners, in their typical way, thanked Lahay for the advice — and then ignored it.

Good to his word, Lahay consulted with Michael Byers, a professor of international law at Vancouver’s University of British Columbia. The topic was sanctions and how to have Canada’s existing sanctions on Burma increased.

Lahay also contacted one of Canada’s political parties, the New Democratic Party. What Lahay didn’t know was that after he consulted with Byers, Byers went on to contact Jack Layton, then the leader of the NDP. Shortly afterward, Lahay, along with an official from the Friends of Burma and NDP MP Paul Dewar, held a press conference outside the House of Commons in Ottawa to explain the case. Then the NDP introduced a bill in the House of Commons on increased sanctions against Burma.Within a few weeks of the press conference, the government announced increased sanctions against Myanmar — and ruled that Myanmar-flagged vessels would no longer be allowed entry into Canada.

The campaign’s success was the result of hard work and ongoing analysis of the politics in both Canada and Myanmar. One of the critical points in Canada was that government of the day sought and relied on support from conservative church groups – and these groups supported Myanmar’s indigenous Karen people, whose cultural oppression had made headlines in Canada. Lahay knew that if all of this was packaged in the right way, it could be useful in pushing the campaign forward.

(As a footnote, Paul Dewar lost in his re-election bid to represent Ottawa as its Member of Parliament last month, but Dewar should be proud to have played such a significant role in undermining the Burmese Generals at a critical time.)

Soon after, in 2010, Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest. Restrictions were easing in Burma.

In 2012, Lahay consulted with Shwe Tun Aung, the ITF’s Burma-born and exiled inspector, about reinvigorating an ITF campaign to support Burmese seafarers. (Shwe was by then based in Houston, Texas as an ITF Inspector.) The friendship between Lahay and Shwe stretched way back, through other labour struggles, and the pair decided to join hands again. With Shwe’s support, Lahay was able to put Burma once again on the ITF agenda by adding it as an issue to an ITF coordinators meeting held in Casablanca. The ITF, as expected, supported the motion that was presented to the coordinators and assigned Lee Cash from its trade union development program to the team.

The project was successful.

The ITF was able to assist in the foundation and registration of a new, legally recognized seafarers union in Myanmar. It’s known as the Independent Federation of Myanmar Seafarers, or IFOMS.

We can’t help but note that Myanmar has come a long way in a short time. IFOMS has had to struggle for respect and recognition, but recognition of its existence and work is coming now from the Myanmar government.

We must be positive and continue our work together to support of the wellbeing of Myanmar seafarers — and indeed, acknowledge that these are now Myanmar seafarers, not Burmese. They have taken their country back, and their name now reflects that.

That is what mutual respect is all about.

In the coming weeks: A new union finds its sea legs.

Your Saturday Listen: They don’t like us. We don’t care.

We’re back — and we’re on fire.

Every couple of years, ITF inspectors from around the globe gather for the Worldwide Inspectors Seminar, where we sharpen our skills and catch up on ITF policies and programs. Often the location for the seminar is strategically chosen — and this year, Panama fit the criteria perfectly.

It was the ideal place to meet: the newly expanded Panama Canal is nearing completion, plans for a major container hub port are under way, the country is increasingly relevant in the world of international capital — and it’s home to the largest flag-of-convenience on offer to the world of shipping.

For inspectors, there was one other joy in the choice of Panama. We climb gangways daily with the sole aim of establishing and defending just, safe and decent maritime workplaces. Our job is to get stuck into fights with shipowners to protect the rights of seafarers and dockers. As we headed for our training session, we knew that the Panama Canal workers, who have no right to strike, had been without a valid collective agreement for a long time — and that they faced massive safety issues on the job.

So it wasn’t just a training seminar we were heading for. It was an exercise in solidarity. And sometimes, when it comes to maritime workers and critical chokepoints for shipping, solidarity really makes a difference.

The video above is a short clip of a rally held by the coalition of the Panama Canal’s maritime unions during our visit this month. (There’s more video footage at the end of this post.) We were invited to take part in supporting our comrades on the canal. The protest was big, loud, lively and heartfelt. And it got Panama’s attention. As the march drew to a close at the presidential palace, the Vice Minister of the Presidency and the Vice Minister of Labour asked to meet representatives of the coalition. Jacqueline Smith, the ITF’s Maritime Coordinator, and Ivan de la Gaurdia, General Secretary of the Union de Capitanes y Oficiales de Cubierta, met with them in the palace for more than two hours.

We took to the streets in a show of solidarity — not only with the Panamanian workers, but also in support of the specific and critical safety issues they have raised. They are concerned, for example, about the fleet of canal tugs (which guide the massive ships into place during transit) that is only marginally maintained and has several serious design flaws. Beyond that, the Panama Canal Administration refuses to provide training in connection with the canal’s new expansion – leaving workers to travel outside the country at union expense for training on how to tackle their newly configured work.

Equally important, workers say there are trade-union and human rights at stake.

As canal workers put it, “the governments and corporations are not going to stop trying to squeeze our necks until we drop dead from exhaustion and concern. Things get worse by the day in this country. We need to stick together or we will soon be boarding a shuttle straight to middle-age feudalism.

“The canal is no more than a sugar cane or tobacco plantation, [canal authority CEO Jorge Quijano] being the owner, and management the usual foremen.”

De la Guardia notes Quijano “hates when we say that,” but argues that the real solution is to deal with the issues workers have raised.

They have been herded into “a legal bubble in which only the canal regulations and only a chapter of the state’s constitution apply,” de la Guardia says. “They are a country within a country, another Vatican — but without the clergy and the Pope. I am telling you, this is becoming more and more a time bomb.”

We share de la Guardia’s outrage. Panama may be allowed to operate a flag-of-convenience registry that gives no voice to worker’s rights. But Panamanians should not live in a flag-of-convenience republic; workers there must be allowed the right to organize and to free collective bargaining. Canadian inspectors, like the 150 of our brothers and sisters around the world, stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the canal workers in this fight. We will remain at their sides until the struggle is won.

Before we close, we must also express great pride in Canadian inspectors Vince Giannopoulos, Karl Risser and Gerard Bradbury, and Gerard’s partner Kelly, who all played a prominent role in the demonstration. For his part, Canadian coordinator Peter Lahay led the crowd in memorable version of the famous Bob Crow call-and-response chant of “they don’t like us, we don’t care.”

Panamanian workers felt the love. In a letter of thanks on their behalf, de la Guardia wrote: “The rally was a landmark event and will be forever in our memories. To see you guys jumping, cheering and rallying with us was a positively significant event, solidarity in its truest form … We were ecstatic looking at you and seeing the levels of commitment, organization, heart, brotherhood and solidarity displayed by all of you. You risked all to rally with us since this is, after all, a foreign country for all of you and you did not know what to expect. Remarkable and inspiring, if you ask me.”

Next up: A brief look at the seminar itself.

Panama protest

Canada’s Vince Giannopoulos and Karl Risser (top centre, with flag) whip up a frenzy of solidarity at the Panama Canal rally Oct. 15, 2015.

Ivan de la Guardia thank-you letter