Ships of Shame: the ugly beat goes on

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The best stories about labour rights are the ones with happy endings, that conclude with the abuse relegated to the past and the workers ensured a safe, respectful workplace. Where they work happily ever after.

The story of seafarers rights and the ITF’s efforts to enshrine and enforce them, doesn’t have a happy ending yet.

Last week, even as we were writing about a new labour tool we helped the shipping world develop – even as we were detailing one new small step forward – the ITF’s Australian inspectors were boarding a ship where five crew reported that they’d been starved, locked in a cargo hold and told they would be killed and their deaths “made to look like suicide.”

Our point: The cheating and abuse and disgraceful behavior of shameful shipowners isn’t a relic of an unenlightened industry’s sorry past.

It still goes on.

In the port of Mackay on the coast of Queensland last week, Australian  ITF inspector Matt Purcell found that crew of the Korean bulk carrier MV C. Summit had been working for months without pay. They had been locked in hatches, forced to do work outside of their requirements and were living on what Purcell “could only describe as a starvation diet.”

Purcell, who described the abuse as “the worst kind of bullying he had ever encountered”, also discovered the ship was operating with two contracts: one that workers signed prior to boarding and the other, which doesn’t meet even the most basic international standards for labour agreements, signed shortly after the crew joined the ship.

No surprise. The ship is owned by Korea-based Chang Myung Shipping Co. and sails under the flag-of-convenience-like Korean registry. It has racked up repeated deficiencies in several port state control areas. As recently as November of 2014, it was found to have breached Denmark’s labour standards.

For Canadians, our point is more than just a reminder that substandard shipping still exists.

It is also a reminder that Stephen Harper’s Conservatives are pushing hard to sign trade deals that cement foreign corporate rights in Canada. One of his recent targets is the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement, or CETA, that he is chasing in Europe.

Under the deal, our coastal trade, now limited to Canadian-registered and crewed vessels, would be thrown open to foreign flags, one step at a time. The sellout would not likely end until all three of our coasts, our Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence Seaway were cleared of Canadian jobs – and our passenger ferries on both coasts as well.

It is a race to the bottom, and it is wrong.

As ITF inspectors in Canada, it is our job to use whatever legal and industrial means we can to enforce the rights of seafarers on foreign-flagged vessels whenever we find them breached.

As Canadians, it is our moral job to raise our voices against Harper’s plans.

You can find more on that effort here.

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