Monthly Archives: October 2015

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


Your Saturday Listen: Paddy Crumlin on having courage through the storm

As Canadians gather this holiday weekend to share Thanksgiving meals, we’ll also be debating the kind of government we hope to secure in this month’s national elections. So it seems like a good time to post a Saturday Listen that offers the kind of rousing message of solidarity  that only Paddy Crumlin can deliver.

Crumlin is the the president of the ITF. The video is a short call to arms he offered on Sept. 26 in Liverpool, where workers were gathered to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the dockers’ dispute . Two weeks ago, we wrote about Canada’s role in the legendary battle that eventually became the world’s longest picket line.

Paddy, of course,  was in Liverpool to do more than celebrate.

He was there to urge all working people to remember the “moral corruption behind the decision to attack those dockers, and that union.” And he was there to talk about “this storm that was coming then, and is still coming” — the thunderstorm of legal and corporate attacks on working people and, for those lucky enough to be organized, their unions.

The battle goes on in the U.K. Just last month, Britain’s Tory party passed a raft of anti-labour legislation that went far beyond anything Margaret Thatcher dreamed about. It’s happening in Canada too. The Harper government’s assault on our own workers and working families is lengthy: using cheap foreign labour to suppress Canadian wages, forcing an end to legal strikes, interfering in bargaining, imposing settlements, attacking equity work, forcing costly and unnecessary union disclosures, complicating the work of organizing itself… the list goes on and on.

But for all Paddy’s warnings at the Liverpool gathering, he reminded the crowd to celebrate the dockers anniversary too — because, as he says, the dispute had provided a moment for workers to “reclaim their institutions.”

To those involved in the dispute 20 years ago, he called it a reminder of the courage and determination they displayed. They taught other workers that “if you’re prepared to go out and fight for your rights, you’re an inspiration to others,” he said. “We want to reclaim this world — and you’ve given us the courage and determination to go forward.”

Paddy’s words seem to us like the perfect choice for a weekend when Canadians gather with friends and family from coast to coast to coast, to give thanks — and to weigh their choices about government, about the kind of communities and country we want to build, and about Canada’s place in world.

For our part, we will give thanks this weekend for the men and women who work at sea, making possible the trade that builds the world’s wealth. And to their families, who love and support them at such great cost too.

Our inspectors at work: The joys and the challenges


Seafarers and inspectors: Vince Giannopoulos hangs with crew.

Most of the work we write about involves distress-related cases where crew are cheated of salary or treated poorly. In fact, the range of work we do is as broad as the range of human beings we meet and represent.

Today, we offer you a quick peek at just two moments in the recent working lives of our inspectors in the Atlantic and Great Lakes/St. Lawrence regions. They represent the small moments when we can lend a hand and share a common human moment with a seafarers – and the other, tougher moments when we have to make a hard call on a complaint that we aren’t sure we can, or should, proceed with as presented.

Vince Giannopoulos, the ITF’s inspector for the Great Lakes/St. Lawrence, shared a story recently about being out on a routine vessel labour inspection in Montreal and chatting with the seafarers onboard. One of the men mentioned that he was heading in to town shortly, and Vince told him that he had about an hour’s work to finish up – but if the man could wait and the timing worked out, he was welcome to hitch a ride with Vince. He did, and on the drive, the two talked about daily life at sea and how much seagoing workers learn to appreciate the little things that many other people don’t ever think about.

The seafarer told Vince that between several long waits at anchor and given the nature of the ship’s tramping voyages, it had been nearly four months since he’d had a chance to get ashore. That kind of wait isn’t the rule for all maritime workers, but it isn’t uncommon. The comment reminded Vince of one of the things he’d noticed while doing his own sea time in Canada: that very quickly, it affected him to be walking on nothing but steel surfaces for weeks on end. And the seafarer said he had noticed too – only for him, it was months on end. Vince’s point was that walking on steel, and the huge way it can affect a worker’s mental outlook, was something that no one who works shoreside would have reason to think about.

The two men shared stories, and when Vince dropped him off, he left the man with a business card. On the back, he wrote the name of the terminal the man needed to return to, and the exact intersection to give the cab driver on the return trip, since docks and ships can be hard to find. The man asked if Vince would mind if he called later if there was a problem, to have Vince explain the ship’s location to the cab driver. And it turned out that he did call, and Vince was able to help direct the cabbie. It was a small thing, but it made the man’s return to the ship faster and cheaper and stress-free.

And that’s how part of our days look: common moments of humanity, connecting with the seafaring workers we represent, and sharing a moment.

Other times, it’s more like the challenge that Gerard Bradbury, our Atlantic inspector, faced recently – one of those cases where we have to try to figure out where the truth really lies in the complicated and conflicting stories we are handed.

Gerard’s case began when he was contacted by family of a seafarer claiming that he was abandoned without money or food in Sydney, N.S. The vessel he was to have been working aboard had been placed in detention for safety-related deficiencies unrelated to the seafarer, and the owners were trying to swap out one FoC flag for a new one, in Panama. As that was going on, the man said he had been left without food or shelter.

The company, on the other hand, provided what it said were Western Union money transfers that showed advances being sent to his family in El Salvador, as required. They said the seafarer had also been given about $500 in cash and a hotel room and food during his wait for the ship. More than that, they were arguing that it turned out the seafarer had taken the job in order to be flown to Canada, with the ultimate unannounced aim of going to work in the U.S. instead.

Mixed up in all those messy, contradictory details, they were also arguing about whether the seafarer had been told that he had needed to apply for a Canadian visa.

Those are tough cases. We sort through them the best we can. People sometimes have motives that lead them to share a less-than-honest account of how they arrived on our doorstep in need of help. And often, shipowners are not only thrifty with the facts, they are downright deceitful.

In Gerard’s case, the company was accusing the seafarer of trying to pull an immigration scam to get into the U.S. As labour inspectors, we really don’t have any business getting mixed up in those kinds of debates or accusations or cases.

Nonetheless, Gerard did intervene to insist that the man be paid in full, and that the cost of airfare be arranged to fly back him back to El Salvador. Wire transfers were received, flight details were confirmed and we closed the matter at that point.

Many cases are murky. In ones like this, all we can do is the best we can to make sure that any money owing a seafarer is paid out and any repatriation obligations are met.

Some days are a challenge, some a comfort. That’s the way solidarity works.


Inspectors and paperwork: Gerard Bradbury sifts through records.



Your Saturday Listen: Our thoughts are with the missing crew of the El Faro

Sad news this morning as the outlook turns grim for the cargo ship missing in a hurricane near the Bahamas with 33 crew aboard. It’s a tough reminder of the debt we owe the workers who move our goods and on whose backs we build our trade and prosperity.

All of us go to our jobs in the morning expecting to return safely. Ships are already more dangerous than the average industrial workplace. For seafarers, the ultimate danger is that their workplace itself will be lost, battered by seas and weather.

Our thoughts are with the American and Polish crew of the containership El Faro, a US-flagged vessel last known to be battling 150 mph gusts, 30-foot waves and as much as 25 inches of rain — and with the search crew scouring the seas for any sign of them. All of the missing seafarers are members of ITF affiliates: the Marine Engineers Beneficial Association, the Masters, Mates and Pilots, and the Seafarers International Union. We are all brothers and sisters of the sea and our hearts go out to the families of the missing men and women.