KJIPUKTUK (Halifax) – With low pay, long days, and long periods away from home working conditions for most seafarers are always difficult. But during the coronavirus pandemic, things are very bad indeed, says Karl Risser, an International Transport Workers Federation (ITF) inspector here in Nova Scotia.
The ITF is an affiliation of transport worker unions that to the best of its ability ensures that the shipping industry is regulated effectively and workers are supported, regardless of their nationality or the flag of the ship. Risser cannot just board every vessel that visits Nova Scotia ports, only those that have a unionized crew or that have an agreeable owner are fair game.
“In normal times we’re talking about guys who work for nine months straight, at very low wages. Now with COVID-19 we’ve got workers that have been on board ships for 13 or 14 months. They’re all trapped and they can’t get home to the Philippines, they can’t get home to India, to the Ukraine,” Risser says. “It’s getting desperate. We’ve heard reports of seafarers jumping overboard, seafarers fighting, massive tension on board, because no one knows for how long they will be stuck there.”
“And then there are the cruise ships that aren’t sailing. You have all nationalities on those and they have become these big quarantine hubs where they’ve been stacking and packing crew members. It makes no sense to me at all, you just need 30 guys to keep things safe, but entire crews are stuck on board because there’s nowhere for them to go. They can’t fly them home, all the infrastructure for repatriation has disappeared, you can’t get to Manila or Ghana or India. And even if you made it to India you’d find all further travel shut down.”
Risser says the Seafarers International Union and the ITF did manage to bring 74 Canadian sailors home from two cruise ships docked in the US a few weeks ago. But 74 is nothing, says Risser, who has heard of as many as 60,000 cruise ship workers trapped at sea.
Shore leave is another big issue for the cooped-up sailors docked in Halifax and elsewhere, Risser says. They’re only allowed on shore for medical reasons, and Risser and others are working with these seafarers to get prescriptions filled and so on. Risser has argued that people who have been forced into quarantine for weeks clearly are not carrying the virus, but they have to follow the Nova Scotia rules that only allow essential visitors into the province.
The shipping companies aren’t helping either.
“When I get to the captain the first thing they say is ‘no, I don’t want my crew leaving.’ And I tell them, well, your crew’s been on board for 13 months, they’d like to get away for a bit from this steel can they’re in. But as of yet we haven’t been successful getting people off,” Risser says.
When I last spoke with Risser two years ago, we talked about the extremely low wages paid to workers who are mostly from the global South and/or countries in conflict situations.
“This young man I recently met, he makes just over $400 a month, and of that he sends home $330 to support his family. That leaves him with a couple of dollars to buy smokes or whatever he needs,” Risser told me at the time. “For that he was working 290 hours per month at $1.37 per hour. 100 of those hours being overtime, he got a whopping $1.56 per hour.”
That hasn’t changed, Risser says. Some ships are still sailing, but with reduced trade many aren’t moving. Those sailors are stuck with wages between $400 and $500, and no opportunity to work overtime and maybe earn a bit more.
What allows these horrible working conditions to persist are the Flags of Convenience (FOC), the international system that allows companies to register their ships in countries with low labour and safety standards, without any genuine connection between the flag a ship flies and the nationality or residence of its owners, managers and seafarers.
The ITF is conducting a campaign to get rid of FOCs that fuel this rush to the bottom. In an increasingly fierce competitive shipping market, each new FOC is forced to promote itself by offering the lowest possible fees and the minimum of regulation. In the same way, ship owners are forced to look for the cheapest and least regulated ways of running their vessels in order to compete, and FOCs provide the solution, the ITF argues on its website.
“It’s really sad. They’re already the forgotten crews that work on these ships flying their flags of convenience, and now they’re really forgotten. For how long are these guys going to have to stay at sea? The workers want to know, how long are we going to be at sea? You can’t even get a straight answer. There’s no real willingness to act. Governments are moving slow and the lawyers are moving slow. Everybody’s saying, well, those guys are on board of their ship and they’re safe,” Risser says.
With a special thanks to our generous donors who make publication of the Nova Scotia Advocate possible.
Subscribe to the Nova Scotia Advocate weekly digest and never miss an article again. It’s free!