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.