Monthly Archives: June 2015

Canada’s merchant fleet: we stand on guard for thee


It has always been true that when workers begin to do well, corporations and government soon come after us. And it’s especially true in the maritime industries. The history books are littered with examples of strong seafarers’ unions and strong dockworkers’ unions taken on – and taken down – by industry and government. The ash bins of history are filled with the remnants of formerly strong unionized workforces that once boasted thousands of workers, cut down now to a handful in isolated niche sectors.

It happened to Canada.

Our nation once boasted the third-largest merchant marine in the world. Seafarers’ unions were strong and workers were growing prosperous after returning from the sacrifices made during the Second World War. It wasn’t to last. Due to a number of global economic, industrial and labour factors, the majority of the Canadian public’s wartime fleet was soon transferred into private corporate hands. The majority of the vessels were sold to Canadian shipping companies for pennies on the dollar, and a large portion of that fleet was then flagged out.

How did it work? Canadian operators were highly dependent on the growth of the British economy, and when the expected growth failed to meet forecasts, it sent the shipping markets into a tailspin. Canadian shipowners wanted to get out from under the strong Canadian trade-union control of their labour force. Under the leadership of Vancouver maritime lawyer J.V Clyne, an alliance of shipowners and the Canadian government entered into negotiations with the British government to transfer three-quarters of Canadian tonnage to the UK register, which turned it into a de facto Flag of Convenience. Under the deal, the ships could transfer to the UK registry but remain Canadian-owned. They would operate through a special management scheme authorized by the Exchequer. They would be allowed to earn both dollar and sterling freights; profits would go to their Canadian owners and taxes, fees and other incentives would benefit the UK. The British government insisted that the UK-registered ships would be expected to carry British crews, or at least be paid British rates of pay – a benefit to Canadian owners, because at the time Canadian seafarers were pretty much on top of the heap in terms of pay and benefits.

The story of the Canadian fleet, built by public money, being sold to private interests for pennies on the dollar, is a dark one. It raises many questions. This is the same period that saw the rise of Aristotle Onassis and Greek shipping. How did a poor, agrarian, war-torn nation such as Greece become the world’s largest ship-owning nation? The same way Norway, Denmark and many other countries grew their fleets: they were gifted Canadian ships built by the taxpayers of Canada and built for the purpose of saving the world from fascism.

The story raises another unsettling point.

It means that in the end, Canada is largely to blame for enabling the global dominance of the world’s most transnational of industries, often the most brutal of employers and definitely the most loosely regulated market in the world: Flag of Convenience shipping.

All of this is really just background to understanding the fight that Canadian seafarers face today: to ensure that Canadian-flag domestic shipping remains in the hands of Canadian-based companies that register their ships in Canadian registries, that are covered by the Canada Shipping Act and whose vessels remain crewed by Canadian seafarers.

It’s not going to be an easy battle. As part of the CETA trade deal the Harper Conservatives are trying to sign with Europe, our government is poised to sell out our domestic shipping industry to the Europeans — who still operate cheaper, FOC-like registries that do not require any Europeans to actually work on, for example, the UK or Norwegian-registered ships.

Once again, the Canadian government is selling out domestic shipping to European interests. This is not good for Canadian seafarers. It is not good for the public purse. And it will certainly mean a cascading risk to the marine environment when Canadians no longer have care and control of the vessels that ferry potentially hazardous goods through Canadian waterways.

So this July 1, no matter what our industry, let us commit to ensuring that Canadian industry benefits Canadian communities and workers – including our seafarers.

Happy Canada Day.

For more information on the CETA struggle, click here and here.

You can find more on the transfer of Canadian tonnage to the UK registry in this book.




Not every Elixir is good for you

Gerard  ITF ‘s Gerard Bradbury conducting inspections in Halifax on Day of the Seafarer, June 25, 2015.

It was a busy day for all three Canadian inspectors as they climbed gangways on the Day of the Seafarer June 25th. For Gerard Bradbury, our Atlantic region inspector, wage problems found on a ship in Halifax have now been resolved for 11 Filipino crew.

While aboard the tanker MV Elixir, part of the Flag of Convenience registry of the Marshall Islands, Gerard was inspecting pay records when he noticed that the seafarers’ employment contracts were filled in with amounts lower than the collective bargaining agreement for this ship. The agreement was signed by an ITF-affiliated seafarers union, the Pan Hellenic Seaman’s Union of Greece. When an affiliate of the ITF signs a collective bargaining agreement, they are required to meet agreed minimum standards. This is known as an ITF Acceptable Agreement.

Here is what happens — and what probably explains Gerard’s finding on board the tanker. When seafarers are being assigned and deployed to ships, the crewing agency requires they sign an employment contract in their home country. The wages contained in the employment contract are in line with those agreed between the ship’s operator and the crewing agency. Often, these salary levels are not in compliance with any particular collective agreement that may be in force on the given vessel, and the crew are not advised that the ship is covered by an ITF Acceptable Agreement.

When caught, the operators will often cite a mistake made by the crewing agents. We would note that we never find similar “mistakes” being made in favor of the seafarer.

Gerard made a fortunate catch for the 11 Filipino ratings. All of the ranks from steward to bosun were being underpaid — some would say cheated — by between $20 US and $299 US per month. Luckily for the crew, they had just come aboard in April, so the monies owing were not very large. But they could have been. In the case of the bosun, for example, had the underpayment not been detected, he would have surely been cheated  approximately $3,000 — or about 20 per cent of his income — during his 10 months aboard.

As well, the owner of that tanker knows we are on top of them now.

Your Saturday listen: The ITF’s Steve Cotton on upping our game

We’re launching a new offering: the Saturday morning listen. This week, ITF General Secretary Steve Cotton talks about delivering measurable results in improving the lives and working conditions of the world’s transportation workers — and drills down on the campaign aimed at DHL, the German logistics giant.


You’ll hear Cotton sit down with the International Longshore and Warehouse Union ‘s Dockers Podcast team of Dan Kask, Mike Mayer and Mike Scopazo for an hour. During their very lively talk, Cotton describes his role and the ITF’s reinvigorated agenda under the leadership of himself  and ITF President Paddy Crumlin.

Cotton was elected General Secretary of the ITF at the Sofia Congress in 2014. He’s been with the federation for 23 years years, starting off as a clerk in our collective agreements section and rose through the Special Seafarers Department. He was responsible for the growth and oversaw training of the ITF’s inspectorate, which has grown from about 50 inspectors to 150, and for relations with seafarers and dockers unions and collective bargaining. As General Secretary, Steve now takes all of that experience into his responsibilities for all of the ITF’s industrial sectional work: civil aviation, road and rail transport, docks, fisheries and tourism.

Given his lengthy resume, one might think Steve is closer to the end of his career than the beginning. But, as he reveals in conversation, he is just 46 years old. In our opinion, this could be an incredible period for the ITF under his leadership as we aim to conduct successful and ambitious campaigns in support of transport workers.

FOC shipowner put 23 lives and Newfoundland’s waters at risk — just to save money

Canada’s ITF inspectors board Flag of Convenience ships daily; the seafarers we meet and the conditions we find them in — sometimes cheated, sick, underfed, denied a return home when their contracts are done —  are all we need to convince us the work is worth it.

But it’s nice to have the country’s top safety inspectors confirm that foreign ships run by companies too cheap to maintain their vessels or spend on safety really do endanger both lives and our marine environment.

The Transportation Safety Board has just released its findings on the grounding of the Panamanian-flagged MV John I, which ran aground off southwest Newfoundland in March of last year.

The report is hair-raising.

According to the TSB’s investigation, the ship’s seawater cooling system (which uses seawater to cool the engine) failed — and because parts on it were worn and indicators were missing, the crew trying to fix it failed too. The engine room flooded, steering was lost and the John I began to drift toward the shoals 41 nautical miles away — faster than the commercial tow that the captain had ordered could arrive. The captain, working with a small-scale photocopied chart that didn’t show all present hazards, decided he’d drop anchor if he needed to. The coast guard, knowing the tug was too far away and anchoring was a poor and last resort, sped to the scene and with the John I at growing risk of grounding, offered to secure a tow line. With high winds picking up dangerously fast, the captain instead spent 20 minutes debating the potential cost of a coast guard tow with the Turkish owners. When he finally asked for a coast guard price, he was told there wasn’t one. So he accepted. Coast guard crew attempted to secure a tow line. In below-freezing temperatures and with the surface covered in ice, the effort failed. Anchors were dropped but failed to stop the drift, and the John I grounded.

Indecisive. Cheap. Penny-pinching. Negligent. Insufficiently concerned with the lives of the men on board or the oceans that would have suffered had the hull (which suffered tears and punctures) actually cracked. Pick your conclusion.
Keep reading!

A heartfelt thank you to seafarers everywhere

Today is the International Day of the Seafarer.

Let’s not lose sight of the fact that this day is all about the men and women who sail the ships that move our goods.

It is not about the International Maritime Organization.

It is not about the International Transport Workers Federation.

And it is most certainly not about the industry that treats them so often with disregard. That sometimes underpays them or steals their wages, keeps them on board at work far past their contracted time, that sends pay allotments home to desperate families long after the money is due, that cuts back on food, on clean water or hot water, ignores their injuries, refuses to provide basic recreation on board or the basic wifi or computer connections that would allow them to stay in touch with the families they are away from for months on end.

No. The Day of the Seafarer is not about any of that.

It is about celebrating the work these men and women do for all of us, serving as the backbone of the global shipping industry.

They carry the weight of the world’s wealth-generation on their backs. They do it through rough seas, raging storms, inhuman heat and bitter cold.

They do it, by and large, with little complaint. And often with a smile on their faces.

In the weeks and months to come, you will hear stories about these seafarers, and details of their work lives and cases, from the three Canadian ITF inspectors who climb gangways every day to defend and advance their rights.

For today, all that needs to be said is a heartfelt “thank you.”

From all of us. Everywhere.

safe sailing,

Gerard, Vince and Peter,
your Canadian inspectorate

Seafarers need less lip service from Canada — and more action on eradicating dangerous, criminal FOC shipping

News release    June 23, 2015 10:30 ET

Seafarers Need Less Lip Service From Canada — and More Action on Eradicating Dangerous, Criminal FOC Shipping Industry

Trade Deals Put Our Marine Environment at Clear Risk

VANCOUVER, BC  (Marketwired – June 23, 2015) — Industry should pay less lip service to mariners on the International Day of the Seafarer on June 25 — and instead acknowledge that the Flag-of-Convenience (FOC) ships they work aboard pose severe and increasing risk to Canada’s marine environment and to the health and welfare of the workers that make Canadian trade possible.

Although Canada recently signed on to the international Maritime Labour Convention that lays out minimum standards for seafarers’ living and working conditions, the Harper government is also aggressively pursuing the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) that would open Canadian coastal trade to foreign ships, precisely because the crew are cheaper and more easily exploited by the Flag-of-Convenience industry.

“It’s ironic, and it’s appalling,” says Peter Lahay, Canadian coordinator for the International Transport Workers Federation (ITF). “No sooner do we pick up one tool to help us protect the foreign workers who move our goods, than we blow up the industry that provides our own seafarers with decent jobs.

“Many will use International Seafarers Day to pay lip service to the challenges faced by seafarers. But FOCs pose risks to Canada’s marine environment as well. Keep reading!

Welcome to The ITF In Canada

As our salute to the world’s mariners, we will be launching our new blog on June 25th, marked around the world as the Day of the Seafarer.

Seafarers are among the world’s most marginalized and isolated workers. As firm believers in the critical role of solidarity in the labour movement, our aim is to provide functional resources to support them in their work and time away from home, to provide valuable links to assistance they might need and advice they might require and, along the way, perhaps some occasional entertainment to brighten their days.

To those who run the industry, this site aims to help further our mutual efforts to support the men and women who toil at sea, making world trade happen for all of us.

To those in the media interested in transportation, in the marine environment or in commerce, perhaps this site will help inform you and contribute to a constructive dialogue as you work to share news with your readers and viewers.

And finally, to marine and port communities across Canada, and in fact around the world — in places where citizens feel the burden of shipping, and in those where they are lifted by the benefits of good paying jobs — perhaps this site will help to find a balance of interests and the civil dialogue needed  to reach the goal of sustainable communities, good jobs and a clean environment.

All of which is a grand hope. But the sooner we admit we must come to grips with the complexities and competing interests in the world’s shipping industry, and address them together, the better off we will be.

Wish us luck. Feel free to contribute. Our contact details can be found up top; our comment box is always open.

Safe sailing, fair tides.