For a couple of years now, Canada’s seafarering and longshore unions have been sticking our fingers in the chest of our federal government, trying to get them to understand that their corporate-rights deals — like CETA — will cost Canadians high quality maritime jobs and invite open exploitation of foreign workers.
But sometimes real life screams louder than we ever could.
Just ask the 19 Filipino crew of the Ben Wyvis, a bulk carrier that just motored in to the Port of Vancouver to load Canadian wheat bound for Ecuador.
None of the crew has been paid in three months — which means no money has gone home to families in the Philippines for rent or food or medicine or school expenses, or for Christmas. Pay on-board — the little slice of money that tides seafarers over during their months at sea and brief port visits — hasn’t been paid either. The unpaid wages as of year’s end totalled more than $260,000 US. More than a quarter of a million dollars. Imagine.
Eleven of the 19 men have been on board that ship since Dec. 18 of 2015, well past the 10 months they had contracted to work. They just spent a second straight Christmas on the ship, without seeing home at any point between the two holidays. Again, imagine.
In a final insult, food was running short as they sat at anchor in Houston Pass near Nanaimo for a month, waiting for their cargo to arrive in Vancouver and the ship to be called alongside to load.
While they were anchored in the Gulf Islands, they emailed ITF Canadian coordinator Peter Lahay to say they were due to arrive in port unpaid. Wages were owing and provisions were going to run out in days, one crew member wrote. “I hope you can help us,” his note ended. “Please don’t reveal my email address.”
Lahay investigated and has found the claims were true. The monies are in fact owing. He has contacted the ship’s managers and the crew managers to demand that all crew be paid up in full until the end of December. A full answer and a confirmation of payment was needed by Wednesday, Lahay has told them, or Transport Canada will be asked to investigate and detain the ship under breaches of the collective bargaining agreement and the Maritime Labour Convention.
On the one hand, the case is the same kind of job that ITF inspectors in Canada, and around the world, do every day: enforce and defend seafarers’ contractual rights.
On the other, it couldn’t be a clearer or more timely example of why we have also stepped into the fight to protect the jobs of Canadian maritime workers, now under massive threat as the federal Liberal government moves to finalize new trade deals and gut the laws and regulations that govern Canadian transport.
We have spoken out about Canada’s disgraceful pursuit of a free trade deal with Europe. Stay tuned. We’ll be cranking up the volume again on Jan. 12. More on that later.
The end goal of the Liberal government, like the Conservative government before it, is clear: to steal the jobs now guaranteed by law to Canadian maritime workers, and to allow companies to replace those workers with cheaper and more exploitable labour.
You don’t have to look any farther than the men aboard the Ben Wyvis, sitting at one end of the spout that will move grain into their ship. The able seamen, who provide qualified labour, make $3.22 an hour. They have been held in the ship, their workplace, three months longer than they agreed to work. They have not been paid during any of that time. And if they complain, they will lose their jobs and face possible blacklisting, ruling out any future work. At the other end of that spout is a Canadian grain worker, whose paycheque arrives on time, who has a labour board to back him up when a dispute arises, who doesn’t fear blacklisting should he speak out against his employer — and his employer knows that.
The Ben Wyvis flies the flag of the Marshall Islands. It is managed in Greece, which is part of the European Union that our political leaders have told us — over and over again — holds the trade key to our prosperity.
Lahay, now awaiting word on whether those Greek managers will agree to pay their workers the wages they have been cheated of, says his latest case a clear warning of what the deal really means.
“The Liberal minister wept with joy when the deal was signed,” he says.
“We should all be weeping. We are letting this industry take jobs from Canadians and replace them with some of the world’s most marginalized and isolated workers. On the Ben Wyvis, they exploited the crew openly, brazenly. They know the men won’t complain about food until they are nearly starving. They know they can cheat them. The fear in that email, that heartbreaking plea to keep his email and his name secret, tells you all you need to know,” Lahay says.
“Trudeau’s Liberals — fronted by International Trade Minister Chrystia Freeland — have decided to play along with the bottom-feeders of the industry. Shame on them. And shame on us if we let them.”