Gerard and partner Kelly at a solidarity rally in Panama during inspectors’ training in fall of 2015. The rally was held in support of Panama canal workers.
We’re wrapping up 2015 with mixed emotions.
Gerard Bradbury, our savvy and hard-working working inspector for the Atlantic region, sails off into his post-ITF life in January. We couldn’t be happier for Gerard and his partner, Kelly. They deserve some time to enjoy life. But we’ll miss him. From the first day of his career as an ITF inspector until his final day this week, Gerard has been a fighter. The FoC campaign is not for the faint of heart. It takes a certain determination to beat the overwhelming odds stacked against you in most of the cases we run in defence and support of seafarers – and Gerard has always been up for the battle.
Life for seafarers aboard a ship is not always equal. Often, it is the lower ranks who are cheated or who suffer the most. Gerard has always made a special effort to ensure that the ordinary seamen, wipers, trainees, cooks, stewards and cadets were not being ripped off on their pay — and especially on unpaid overtime. Peter Lahay, the ITF’s Canadian coordinator, has often joked that junior crew owe Gerard a special gratitude for his endless belligerence on their behalf. They wouldn’t know this about him, but we do.
So his departure is bittersweet.
On the sweet side of this bittersweet moment, we’re delighted that Karl Risser picked up the Atlantic baton a couple of months back and has been working with Gerard to get up his first gangways and become familiar with the job, the campaign and the ITF family. Karl is a longtime trade-union activist and leader on the east coast (more about that next year as we profile our Canadian inspectors) and we’re confident that seafarers will find him a great representative. Gerard had wanted to retire a year ago, but Peter talked him into staying while our Great Lakes/St. Lawrence inspector Vince Giannopoulos gained more experience. For that, for his work with Karl, we are extremely grateful to Gerard. He has played a massive role in the renewal of the ITF Canada team.
Gerard is a man of remarkably few words when it comes to talking about his own role in helping represent some of the world’s most marginalized and isolated workers. He is signing off with the same approach he used for 10 years: a quiet, self-effacing but laser-focused determination that the seafarers who help create and move the world’s wealth be treated with respect.
As Gerard was busy preparing to set sail this month, we did manage to pry a few memories free. We thought that all of you who have had the pleasure of working with him might enjoy them too:
Our inspectors come from varied backgrounds. How did you get into this job?
I came from Marine Atlantic, which runs the freight and passenger ferries between Nova Scotia and Newfoundland and Labrador. John Parsons was the previous inspector; he also came through Marine Atlantic and he had been telling me about the job for a couple of years previous, and had asked me if I’d be interested in it. And I had met Peter Lahay, the ITF’s Canadian coordinator, at a BC Ferry and Marine Workers Union convention in Nanaimo, B.C.; he explained a lot about the job as well. And then I got a call from the national financial secretary for the Canadian Auto Workers to ask if I would have an interest, so that’s how it came about that I ended up in the position.
What were you doing at Marine Atlantic?
I had gone from Canadian National, the rail line, to Marine Atlantic, doing whatever I could do to keep ahead of the layoffs. I worked in the office, and then other jobs, and then I worked aboard the ships because the transfers ran out. I was brakeman and a conductor on the trains for years. And then I transferred aboard ships about 1980. And I went into the catering department, then transferred into the engine room, then again back to the catering department — just wherever I could go to stay ahead of layoffs, really.
So in your work, had you had much to do with the deep-sea fleet, or with foreign seafarers?
No, not really. My only contact was just the seafarers I had dealt with — and they’re all the same kind of positions wherever you go — when I became president of the union at Marine Atlantic. You represent all shipboard personnel there, from the engine room to the deck department to the catering department. Canadians work the same positions, but for a whole lot more money than what international seafarers are working for.
So you dove in. What was the training like for inspectors when you started?
The training has evolved a whole pile. When I came along nine or 10 years ago, it was basic, just teaching you how to do wage claims, more or less. Then they put you out in the field for a week, which can be intimidating. My initial training was in London, and the week I spent in the field was in France. My understanding, just from talking with people who are taking the training now, and even listening to Vince Giannopoulos, our Great Lakes/St. Lawrence inspector, who just went through training, it’s a lot different. A lot more enlightening than when I went through it. A lot more material. But in any case, if you’re new, without Peter (or your own coordinator) there to call and get help from in the first year or two, you’re basically lost. It’s two different worlds, seafaring in Canada and seafaring on these ships. It’s not the work they do; we’re all seafarers. I don’t mean that. But on an international ship, when you go aboard, when you’re looking at different collective agreements, different contracts, you find yourself doing a bit of everything. The purser’s job, the whole deal. A purser aboard the ships I came from, they dealt with the money aspects. So you sort of find yourself doing that position in a little way aboard a ship, particularly when you’re going through wage accounts, looking for money, looking for overtime. I guess it’s not made for everybody, and it helps to have some sort of background in seafaring before you would go into it, just so you are familiar with the very basic parts and can focus on the other things you are aboard to inspect or enforce. But if you’re dedicated you can learn it.
You came from a trade-union background in Canada. How different is the labour-relations part of this job?
It’s totally different. In most cases, the captain is a servant of the company. He is not going to make any decisions or disclose any information unless he gets permission, so you’re often better off picking up the phone and calling the company guys. You call Singapore or wherever it’s at. You drag them out of bed. You don’t care what time of day it is. The difference between that and labour representation at Marine Atlantic is that there, you walk across the parking lot and bang on someone’s desk to get what it is you want. But there’s not much sense in banging on the table in front of a captain, because you’re not going to intimidate him or scare him like that. The company is going to take his side regardless of how wrong they are or how wrong he is.
How long did it take you to figure that out?
It comes pretty quickly. Some aspects of it are quite intimidating, though. Particularly in your first year or two, because you don’t know exactly where you’re going or what you’re doing. What you do know, every time you leave a ship after a wage claim, you just have a feeling in your gut. And you think about it a lot. Did I leave anything on the table for these guys, was there anything I missed. You beat yourself up for a little bit, you go back and review it just to reassure yourself that you got everything that was there.
It must be hard to explain to another Canadian who doesn’t work in shipping that a seafarer hasn’t been paid for months for work they have already done and that you often have to argue that they should be given their wages — or that they are being told they will be kept away from home for months and months longer than they agreed to. If most Canadians were told by the boss that they weren’t being paid or that they would be locked up in their workplace with no way home for months, they would be shocked.
You sort of harden yourself to that after a while. You see these hardship cases, and you listen to the seafarers, and all you can do is everything in your power to recoup what’s rightfully theirs, whether it’s just getting on the phone to constantly dog someone, or getting support from unions or colleagues in another country — whatever it takes to get to the end goal, which is the money that these guys sweat and labour and bleed to get. And in a lot of instances don’t receive.
Starting out, the first cases must stick with you. Do you still think about them?
Yeah, but the ones that stick with me are more from recent years. Especially the abandonments. The worst was one of those Christmas abandonments. We had crew abandoned at Christmas in 2012, 2013, 2014. This is probably the first December in four years we haven’t had one. The first one was a tug called the Craig Trans. It was just godawful. It got blown in here to Halifax as it was going to do a tow job, a derelict vessel out of Montreal. I’ve never, ever, in all my years of boarding ships, seen anything as dirty. What the crew were living in, it’s unexplainable. It was just horrible. People sleeping and eating in the galley area of the ship, cockroaches running everywhere. I’d never seen so many cockroaches converged in one place. Rats running around. And these guys are living in it. It was jaw-dropping how cold it was aboard. How they did it is beyond me. Most were from Central America; this was the only job available to them, and they had to take it.
I tried and tried to get the owner to pay these guys and fly them home, because they refused to take the vessel any farther. But the owner just ignored us and it became apparent he was abandoning the vessel and its crew. The ship had absolutely no value, and we couldn’t sell it to cover wages. So we turned to the community. The Mission to Seafarers got involved. We started putting out some press releases, got the news media in through the gate at the port, got a camera on board. They couldn’t believe what they were seeing, that these guys were living in this filth. And the community came together; people started donating their air miles and so forth, to get these guys home. And at the end of the day, they did get enough together to get them home. There were some contributions of cash put together too, and these guys got a few dollars in their pockets, but it still didn’t compensate them for six to eight months of their lives.
Abandonments are awful, but so are the stories people in the rest of Canada used to hear about ships in the Atlantic, the ones about ships breaking up off the east coast in rough winters.
Yes. There was one that blew into Halifax, I believe it was supposed to load grain in Churchill, Manitoba, meaning it would have travelled through the Arctic to get to the east coast. Me and Peter started getting emails from daughter of one of the electricians. She said they were concerned about the safety of the ship, so we started tracking it. They were in a godawful North Atlantic winter storm and then the turbo-charger packed in. It meant they lost at least half the horsepower and could not keep a straight course in the storm. The Department of Defence was monitoring it with satellites. They radioed the ship to see if they needed assistance, but typical of many shipowners, they declined help. Usually it’s because they’re worried about being charged. Eventually the weather moderated and it ended up in Halifax. Along with Transport Canada, we did an inspection. They detained the ship for a couple of weeks. It was the worst they had ever seen. It had cracks in the bulkheads. One inspector who went aboard said that if they ship had taken one more pounding, the 27 crew would have been lost at sea. The ship was that bad. The forward frames that hold the hull plating in place had caved in. If one more frame had buckled, the forward plates would have been knocked off and they all would have been goners. And to add insult to injury, the crew were owed wages. That case sticks out for me, that we probably saved lives in that case. As I said, the electrician knew the status of the ship, so you know the owner did as well — and yet those bastards sent them across the North Atlantic in the depths of winter.
So you’ve seen a little of everything – cheating on wages, crews trying to get home, crappy conditions, abandonments.
Yeah, the abandonments stick with me, though. The little details trouble you. The thing is, at the end of the day, we had two that were successful with payments, but two that weren’t. The Lyubov Orlova in St. John’s, Newfoundland, it was the worst. It was just a godawful nightmare. I try not to even think about it. All these guys, 67 of them, they were stuck on there unpaid, owed about three months’ salary when they arrived, and the few that stayed on to keep the ship running over the winter were out about six months’ pay in the end. And it wasn’t enough the owner had stolen their wages. He even kept their tips. The tips are paid on credit cards, and he had stolen every bit of them too. It was awful, all of it. There was a young female crew member who was raped in the city of St. John’s while they were stuck there, a horrible experience and the cops barely bothered to take a report. That haunts me to this day. And then we had another one, the Navi Wind, again in Newfoundland and at Christmas. When I boarded that ship I couldn’t believe it. The crew were beat up, they were drained. I’ve never seen such pale seafarers in my life. They were bailing out the engine room for three straight days, forming a bucket brigade to keep water out of the engine room. They were in that fierce of a storm. The ship should never have sailed from St. John’s; Transport Canada authorized that ship to sail when it wasn’t fit for sea. They were shorthanded on that vessel. And I contacted them for weeks and months on end about that ship, with safety and wage concerns. They said wages were paid and there were no safety concerns. When I finally went aboard, after it had left and nearly sunk, we found that crew really had not been paid in seven months – although Transport Canada had said they were. And then when the ship blew back in, they detained it for 26 violations. And many of those things were wrong when the ship had sailed.
In cases like that, I guess there’s not a lot to feel good about, except that you can get something back for the crew?
Well the good thing about that one is that we threatened the company with a lawyer, and the lawyer started to undertake the case, to arrest the cargo, and the cargo had greater value than the ship. And at the end of the day, the owner of the cargo was the one who came up with the money to pay the wages. It was over $120,000.
With all of that, then, you walk away from your job with what message for your ITF colleagues, and for the rest of the world?
To me, the campaign, the FoC campaign, was the last thing in my head. I always went aboard with the thought that I’m walking up a gangway to do a job on a personal level, to find out for crew what someone is doing to them or taking from them, or if they’re not being fed or housed or clothed properly. The campaign is last thing on my mind right then. You’re going aboard, to me anyway, for one reason. And that’s to make sure that these guys are protected in every way, shape and form under any law that’s out there. Campaign-wise, to organize a ship, in many regards in Canada, you have very little backing in the labour movement of any kind. Because in many cases, most unions in the country don’t even know what it is you do. Really, that’s the truth. So to go ask them to back up some poor son of a bitch who’s making $900 a month while they are loading the same ship that a seafarer goes out and risks his life on, it’s hard. You do what you can. You pound it through stevedores, you pound it through anybody who will listen, to explain what these guys go through. But really, there’s not much industrial action that can take place, particularly in this neck of the woods. So it’s hard.
What about the Maritime Labour Convention, has that made a difference?
Yeah, that’s the biggest tool we have here in Canada. It’s the number one tool. When you can walk aboard a ship and say to a captain, particularly if you find a deficiency, that you’re going to call Transport Canada to ask for detention of the ship for violations of safety or wages, no food on board, whatever, that is as good as any labour union coming behind you to say we’re not going to load the ship. But there is still a long ways to go, especially in this part of the country.
And yet for all the power it gives you, it sounds like the job stays the same, it’s dealing with the same problems.
The job stays the same, but now you have more power to do something about the problems, to engage the government to do something on your behalf, and on the seafarer’s behalf. It’ll always remain a cat-and-mouse game, this job. These owners are out there to save a dollar. Shipping is still in a bad way, the industry, so they’re cutting corners right now still. I think if you don’t have a plan, if you don’t have the resources to get into shipping, you shouldn’t be in it. A lot of this is people going in with I don’t know what kind of dream, or what kind of money they’re looking for, and at the end of the day, the only people to pay when things are tight or they go wrong is the crew aboard the ship, not being paid, not being fed properly, not having proper clothing, their kids not being looked after, their university bills not paid, their mortgage not paid. The crew has the same range of problems as anyone out there working.
Sounds grim. So what’s your message to the next inspector up the gangway, the guy who hasn’t walked into the worst of those conditions yet?
My advice to anyone who’s coming in here is simple: answer your phone, keep an eye on your text messages, and get your ass aboard any ship that comes in, that you can get up the gangway on. Because there’s always someone who needs your help. It’s no good driving by it and looking at it, because that is going to solve nothing.
Just be prepared. Don’t drive by the ship. Board it. Don’t gloss it over, because when you board these ships, there’s nothing that can be glossed over. If you’re doing your job and checking provisions and you’re checking everything that you should as an inspector, there’s always something to find and there’s always something to report.
But my biggest advice is to contact Peter, or your own coordinator, with any concern; keep them involved, even if it’s just a conversation. I couldn’t give new inspectors better advice, seriously. Do your job and ask for help. There’s more to this than just driving around the port. You can’t be a barker. There’s more to this job than just being loud. Do your work. It’s the loneliest job in the world, you work on your own in that port, but there is advice and somebody who understands what it is you’re doing and what you’re trying to figure out, and you need to get them on the phone regularly. They have a complete understanding of what you’re saying. Not everyone does. But your colleagues do. So call them.
We’ll hand this over now to Peter Lahay for a final word on his longtime friend. Peter writes:
“Nothing sums it up better than to point out that right up until the end, Gerard was fighting for crew who had been exploited. This month, on a vessel called the Green Dale, he found crew described as cadets working 300 hours a month and being paid just $100. The company did its best to explain it away — and even sought assistance to have Gerard back off. But as always, Gerard just plowed ahead and got a good settlement for those guys. He was just days from retirement. He didn’t need to bother. But he did.
Aside from his commitment to other workers, the other thing that stands out is how well Gerard was liked by his fellow inspectors from all over the world — and by the trade unionists from Canada’s marine unions that attend the ITF Canadian Coordinating Committee meetings twice yearly in Ottawa. People did more than like Gerard. They respected him. And his work. It’s the reason that he was named Trade Unionist of the Year by the Nova Scotia Federation of Labour in 2015.
Gerard is just one of those guys that we all come across once in a while in life. He is hard-headed, righteous, stubborn, loyal to a fault and has a heart of pure gold. Guys like Gerard don’t really see grey very well. It’s more black and white — and those are the people that keep the rest of us focused and honest.”
To his partner Kelly McRoberts: For better or for worse, we hand Gerard back to you, full time. Good luck with that. Lol.
And to Gerard: Your friendship, strength and solidarity will never be forgotten.
Fair winds, brother.
Canadian inspectors Vince Giannopoulos, Karl Risser, Gerard Bradbury and Peter Lahay at a training session in Panama, 2015. Colleagues from around the world took time out to applaud Gerard’s service to the campaign.
Gerard was honoured for his long service to working people this year when the Nova Scotia Federation of Labour named him Trade Unionist of the Year.