Labour Day celebrations feel bittersweet for us this weekend. There’s much joy in honouring the rights that workers have struggled to win in Canada, given the high cost they’ve paid for them. But it’s a sombre celebration when on our own West Coast — and around world — maritime workers are caught up in the bankruptcy of shipping giant Hanjin.
All of us have seen the troubling headlines about the South Korean company’s financial collapse. In Canada — alongside at Deltaport in Vancouver and at anchorage in Prince Rupert — crew of two of the 140 or so affected ships were caught up in the mess.
For all of the apparently arcane financial details, the bankruptcy is at heart uncomplicated: depressed freight rates and too many ships. It’s a man-made problem. Greedy shipowners overbuilt and relentless financiers aided them in their race to the bottom. In a nutshell, it’s capitalism at its finest.
What the collapse meant is that around the world, seafarers aboard Hanjin’s container ships, owned or chartered by an already troubled company, woke up last week to grim news: Their employer had gone bust, they might or might not get paid, and they might or might not be flown home. Their wages might come one day, but that day might be months away and might come only after a long fight for the money. In the meantime, families waiting at home for allotments to cover rent, grocery and school bills might go without cash too.
At worst, workers knew they faced the possibility of abandonment.
Abandonment happens all too often in Canada. And it is a disgrace. Croatian and Greek crew of the Navi Wind were abandoned for weeks in Argentia in the bitter depths of a Newfoundland winter until Gerard Bradbury, then our Atlantic inspector, helped win them $100,000 in back pay. Twelve Turkish seafarers on the Phoenix Sun were marooned in Sorel, Que., when the ship’s owner refused to pay for repairs; it took the ITF’s St.Lawrence/Great Lakes inspector Vince Giannopoulos to organize the support to fly them home. The 25 Indian crew of the Atlantis Two were abandoned in Vancouver when they arrived to load $4 million in potash and the ship was detained for $400,000 worth of structural repairs that the owners refused to pay for. ITF Canadian coordinator Peter Lahay eventually pried loose their $300,000 in backpay in a court case a year later. Just this week, 20 Chinese crew aboard the Five Stars Fujian, abandoned three weeks ago without pay and in need of food at anchor off the Port of Gladstone in Australia, were finally awarded back wages with the help of ITF inspector Sarah McGuire.
This Monday, Canadians are celebrating the rights that workers here fought hard to secure. Seafarers aboard Hanjin’s fleet have extensive rights, equally hard-won. They’re covered by collective bargaining agreements backed up by an international convention, the Maritime Labour Convention. (In fact, the most recently negotiated amendment to the MLC is a requirement that shipowners have abandonment insurance). Seafarers’ rights were won through organized and structured flag-of-convenience campaigns run by maritime trade unions around the globe, backstopped by strong dockers unions and the solidarity they extended.
We’ll be celebrating those victories won by seafarers and the 140 ITF inspectors around the world who organize ships into the agreements that protect workers — and enforce them once they’re in place.
But we’ll be celebrating in the shadow of the lesson of Hanjin: that there is no certainty in capitalism. Our present economic system doesn’t serve everyone’s interests. Hanjin’s executives may sail away with their bonuses, but workers, their families and their communities have not been served.
Hanjin’s troubles will take weeks, maybe months, to resolve. The repercussions make take years to rattle through the industry. We will have more to say on this in days to come.
For now, we wish workers everywhere a moment of peace this Labour Day. Today, we salute and honour everyone who labours for a living, and especially those who at such great personal cost move the world’s goods, power our economies and make possible the world’s wealth.
We will continue to stand in solidarity with you, brothers and sisters.