Global seafarers find justice in Vancouver, but piracy remains their greatest fear

For thousands of seafarers working on freighters, tankers and cruise ships in the North Pacific, the port of Vancouver is their union hall and Peter Lahay the shop steward who is just a text message away.

Lahay is the Vancouver representative of the International Transport Federation, a remarkable global union network that counts more than 250,000 seafarers in its ranks, a number that has been growing steadily in recent years.

A typical grievance resolved by Lahay last month was the case of a Filipino cruise ship worker docked in Vancouver whose foot had been badly mangled in an industrial accident at sea.

His employer’s doctor recommended surgery, then added: “You should think about the future, think about another profession.”

For the sole breadwinner for a family of four, thousands of miles from home, the threat of losing his job was more than he could bear.

“They thought they could cast him adrift after a work-related injury,” says Lahay. They were wrong.

Relying on the international agreements established by the federation on more than half of the world’s cargo ships, Lahay quickly secured the worker medical treatment, sick pay to the maximum level of recovery, and a promise of a return to work or compensation for loss of his profession if necessary.

The seaman’s story illustrates why Vancouver has long been a welcome port of call for seafarers, many of whom send ahead an e-mail or text message if they need help. (ITF inspectors like Lahay work in the ports of 45 countries around the globe.)

It also demonstrates the potential for labour contracts on a global basis that work for both employers and employees, improving pay and conditions to the level necessary to maintain a skilled workforce.

On any given day, Lahay estimates that up to 75 percent of the vessels in Vancouver are covered by an ITF agreement, a far cry from the roughly 30 percent union density ashore.

For decades, mariners who faced unsafe conditions, loss of pay or other abuses at sea could count on Lahay and his predecessors for advocacy and support, right up to denial of unloading or arrest of a vessel in extreme circumstances.

“The abandonment cases are the worst,” says Lahay, a former towboat deckhand who been the ITF’s Vancouver inspector since 1993. “The company goes out of business, the crews are stranded on board without pay or food, their families are waiting.”

In the late 1990s, it took Lahay nearly a year to secure $500,000 from the court-ordered sale of the ship for the Indian crew of the Atlantis II to get paid out and travel home. Globally, the ITF recovered USD$31 million for crews last year.
Fortunately, such incidents are increasingly rare.

Using a two-tier system, the ITF is steadily expanding the coverage of its contract conditions, working through the maritime unions of 30 countries. Ship owners can voluntarily adhere to a “total crew cost” agreement that pays seafarers $35,000 a year on average or, in other cases, the ITF standard agreement that pays nearly twice a much.

The result is a steady improvement in pay and conditions at sea, reinforced by a global shortage of trained workers.

The quality of the global fleet is steadily improving, Lahay believes, in part because of treaties like one that mandates Transport Canada to inspect 25 percent of the vessels that call here.

As a result, Lahay and his colleagues in Halifax and Thorold, on the Welland Canal, are spending more of their time working in partnership with shipping companies to lobby for regulatory and other improvements.

In one recent case, Lahay added the voice of Canada’s maritime unions to the International Shipowners Alliance of Canada to intervene in Ottawa on the issue of tightened port security.

Another cause that unites owners and crews is the plague of piracy. There are few seafarers, Lahay says, who haven’t experienced the terror of machine gun bullets across the bow or days of anxious sailing with barbed wire rolled across the deck to repel boarders.

Business in Vancouver, Sept. 14-30