For decades, maritime trade unions have extended a heartfelt hand of solidarity to seafarers in distress in foreign ports. Too often, though, those wanting to help have been badly limited in the support they could extend — because national laws do not apply to a seafarer who is foreign, sailing on a flag-of-convenience ship registered in one country and working for an employer in yet another.
How in the world can crew who haven’t been paid, or have no food, or need medical care, be helped when there are no laws or labour boards with jurisdiction to address the horrific conditions and distress they sometimes suffer — conditions that ITF inspectors confront all too often?
This week, we’re taking a series of looks at a new tool that strengthens the ability of workers to stand up for their labour rights, and helps them support one another in having these rights respected and enforced: the MLC, or Maritime Labour Convention.
In Canada, ITF inspectors bear routine witness to the havoc that substandard – and most often flag-of-convenience – shipping wreaks on maritime workers. We have seen it all: unpaid wages, rotting food, sick and injured workers, unsanitary and unsafe conditions. For anyone raised in a country with even minimal expectations about fair treatment for working people, the conditions are appalling enough to make us vomit. Sometimes literally.
Today, we offer a quick look at a handful of the Canadian cases that illustrate why the MLC was necessary.
Peter Lahay, Canada’s current ITF coordinator, describes the first case he ever handled, in the fall of 1991, as a perfect illustration of life before the MLC came into force two years ago – life for crew, and life for an inspector trying to help rectify problems aboard.
As Lahay tells it, the ITF inspector serving Vancouver was away at an education conference when the crew of Zodiac Maritime’s MV Hemlock called the office of Local 400 of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union looking for help. Dave Crain, president of the local, sent Lahay down to investigate.
What he found on the Hemlock was stomach-churning. Many of the crew were from Bulgaria, and explained that officers and crew were being treated very differently. The vessel was crawling with cockroaches, and when the officers dosed their messroom with bug spray, the roaches fled to the crew’s side. The officers had meat and fresh vegetables every day; the crew had very little meat and were given only the vegetables that were spoiling.
Crew brought Lahay into the officers’ mess and opened a small fridge to show him the supply of bottled water; in the crew’s mess, there was no fridge and no bottled water. In fact, the last time the ship took on fresh water was in Venezuela, where it had pumped up water directly from the Orinoco River. Crew were suffering from stomach ailments and receding gums as a result contaminated water and poor diet.
Finally, one crew member stepped up with tears in his eyes to say he needed medical attention but was being refused by the captain and the owners. A second crew member began to pull the man’s pants down. Lahay attempted to stop him, but the man said, “No, you must see this” and motioned for his friend to drop his pants and underwear and bend over. When he did, Lahay was horrified to see a tangle of blue, green and purple hemorrhoids some 50 centimetres long dangling from the man’s arse – the ailment for which he was refused a doctor. Continue reading