It’s the first Saturday of the new year. It’s tempting to write something cliche like “we’re rededicating ourselves” to the battle for justice for seafarers — but the truth is, we’re dedicated to doing this every day, and the job never really ends.
Much of our day on New Year’s Eve in Vancouver, for example, was spent aboard the MV Bereket, a Panama-flagged, Turkish-owned bulk carrier that was loading agricultural products at the Fraser-Surrey docks for delivery to Cuba. Onboard, we found that the Turkish crew were working under a detailed employment agreement that applied to all of them. Each of the 20-odd clauses were written by the shipowner — and were written entirely in favour of the shipowner. We are now attempting to sign a collective-bargaining agreement for that ship that would bring equity to the two sides. While we work at that, the vessel has been detained by Transport Canada for various safety deficiencies.
In some ways, it’s a classic example as we kick off a new year of our blog. Seafarers are among the world’s most marginalized and isolated workers; they are regularly cheated of wages, denied proper food and working and living conditions and medical treatment — or release from work when their contracted time-period has expired. Grinding workers through an unjust, one-sided contract sums up the contempt that the bottom-feeders in the shipping world hold for their employees.
The Bereket was just one example from Vancouver in the past week.
The MV Harm (no, you can’t make this stuff up) is a German-owned, Liberian-flagged bulk carrier that took on a load of India-bound coal in Vancouver. Crew complaints included salaries below industry standard, not enough to eat, no night lunches for the watchkeeping crews and being forced to pay for work gloves, bottled water, laundry soap and hand soap. They also said they were not being paid the industry-standard pay for cleaning the six cargo holds, which on that ship are each big enough to play a competitive soccer match in. As a final insult, the Romanian captain had ordered crew not to let any of our ITF inspectors aboard, despite the fact the Maritime Labour Convention guarantees them the right to representation. Our request to rectify the issues has been met with total silence from Transeste Schiffahrt, the German owner.
For this week’s Saturday Listen, we’re posting a video of a fairly recent TVOntario show that took a look at “sea blindness” — a reference to the fact that shipping, which delivers almost all of the goods that modern societies depend on, remains relatively invisible to the public.
Have a listen. It’s a wide-ranging discussion and it features some interesting people, including Rose George, author of Ninety Percent of Everything, and Peter Hinchliffe, secretary general of the International Chamber of Shipping. You’ll hear a lot of good things said about the industry: its importance, its improved environmental practices, its efforts to address piracy and so on. You’ll also hear panelist Peter Lahay, the ITF’s Canadian coordinator, burst some of those bubbles.
As Peter makes clear, the shipping industry will continue to face harsh criticism and deep public suspicion as long as shipowners continue to behave badly — for example, by writing labour agreements for crew that favour their own economic interests. Even more importantly — as we will talk more about this year — as long as shipowners continue to threaten crew with blacklisting if they complain about harsh conditions, the industry will deserve the black eye that it tends to get from the public.
Enjoy the video. And welcome back to a new year with The ITF in Canada.