British Columbia

Seafarers in Canadian ports are unable to return home as countries lock down

The union representing seafarers in Canadian ports is raising the alarm, saying these essential workers on whom global trade hinges are at risk of burnout.

Chamber of Shipping says burnout in crews could become a humanitarian issue

Deacon Dileep Athaide waves to seafarers onboard bulk carriers at Westshore Terminals in Delta, B.C. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

The union representing seafarers in Canadian ports is raising the alarm, saying these essential workers on whom global trade hinges are at risk of burnout.

The International Transport Workers' Federation (ITWF) estimates that 100,000 seafarers per month are unable to return home or be relieved by new crews because of the pandemic. While Canada is one of the few countries that have exempted maritime crews from travel restrictions, the situation in other countries can still leave seafarers trapped on their ships in Canadian ports.

"There's a lot of countries that have their borders closed. They won't even accept their seafarers coming home on an airplane," said Peter Lahay who is the ITWF representative in Vancouver. 

Watch: Ships in the Port of Vancouver sound horns in support of seafarers on May 1

Ships in British Columbia joined vessels across the world in sounding their horns at noon in solidarity with seafarers on the front-line of the COVID-19 pandemic. 0:54

He recently dealt with Filipino seafarers whose contracts were up and were due for a crew change in Vancouver, but was unable to help them get home. 

Despite help from Transport Canada in securing visas for a replacement crew, the ship's owner argued that it was too difficult to get a fresh crew out of Manila and instead, persuaded the existing crew to sign new contracts.

A typical contract could be anywhere from six to nine months long, says Lahay. But with many countries under lockdown and flights grounded, some crews have no choice but to sign contract extensions instead of doing a crew change.

"They remain on board the ship. There's no seafarers waiting in Canada, waiting for a border to open up," he said. "That's the tragedy of it. We can't resolve any of the problems because these ships sail into Canada with these problems and then sail out with them."

Lahay says Canadians living with COVID-19 restrictions have a small taste of what these seafarers go through to bring us essential goods and supplies. 

"Imagine being on a ship for nine months, cooped up with the vibration, noise and poorer quality food, and the isolation," he said. "Now imagine you're doing that for another six to nine months — by the time you get home, your newborn child might be a year old and they've never met you."

Even in ordinary times, Lahay cautions that seafarers are prone to exploitation and abuse. He worries that the COVID-19 pandemic will make them even more vulnerable as countries become more protectionist and insular.

'Hypersensitive about ... an infiltration of their ecosystem'

Deacon Dileep Athaide is one of the chaplains whose parish are the seafarers who come to Canadian ports. 

He's noticed that since the COVID-19 pandemic, ship captains have been reluctant to let him onboard whereas before he would be usually waved on.

"When I meet them now, you can tell them they're more nervous," he said. "Before there was this worry that a ship might bring COVID-19 to Canada. Now, I think it's the worry they might pick it up from us."

Deacon Dileep Athaide delivers toiletries and food to seafarers onboard bulk carriers. Whereas before he would be waved onboard, now he often meets the seafarers at the dock. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

While a longshoreman at the Port of Montreal tested positive for coronavirus in March, the Chamber of Shipping says there haven't been any cases of coronavirus reported on ships sailing into Canada. 

Robert Lewis-Manning, president of the Chamber of Shipping, says some shipping companies have instituted regular temperature checks on their vessels, but there aren't any special measures related to coronavirus and Canadian ports.

The foreign seafarers have to interact with Canadian marine pilots who navigate the ships through local waters as well as dockworkers who unload and load the cargo. 

"As you can imagine any ship's crew is hypersensitive about there being an infiltration of their ecosystem."

Foreign seafarers with expiring contracts are still able to disembark at Canadian ports to collect supplies and fly home — with the exception of Arctic posts where there is greater concern about overloading the healthcare system with an outbreak of coronavirus. Lewis-Manning says they cannot stay on if they do not wish to continue with their ship on an extended contract. 

The Chamber of Shipping says the industry has never been this vulnerable to burnout or exploitation.

"It's really really a difficult situation. And as time moves on, it could become a humanitarian issue," said Lewis-Manning.

 

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