Nfld. & Labrador

'Heartless': Foreign workers to replace Canadian crews aboard local shipping company tankers

The union representing workers for Coastal Shipping says its Canadian employees are being laid off during the winter season and replaced with workers from other countries to save money.

'It’s a terrible time, a month before Christmas' says affected worker

The Marshall Islands flag flies aboard the Alsterstern, a Coastal Shipping tanker. It replaced a Canadian flag while anchored in Las Palmas, Spain, earlier this month. (Submitted)

The union representing workers for Coastal Shipping Ltd. says its Canadian employees are being laid off during the winter season and replaced with workers from other countries to save money.

The Coastal Shipping fleet, part of the Labrador-based Woodward Group of Companies, which operates various aviation and transportation companies in the Happy Valley-Goose Bay area, has five tankers that work mainly along Canada's eastern seaboard and Nunavut transporting fuels.

According to the union, at least three of the vessels will now fly the flag of the Marshall Islands, a chain of islands in the Pacific Ocean between Hawaii and the Philippines, though the company says it may just be two.

This gives the shipping company the ability to use non-Canadian crews when operating outside of Canadian waters.

The Coastal Shipping tanker Alsterstern, anchored in Las Palmas, Spain. (Facebook/Rick Vince)

"They can change the flag, they can change the crew, they can do whatever they want with the ship," said Patrice Caron, executive vice-president of the Seafarers International Union of Canada.

Why can't they keep the Canadian crews? We're good at what we're doing.- Patrice Caron

Caron said, together with relief crews, anywhere from 60 to 100 workers could be affected by the layoffs if three or four of the vessels are reflagged, but the company said it would be less.

Dennis White, Coastal Shipping's general manager, told CBC the company is changing flags because there are normally five ships tied up at Lewisporte from December to May with no work.

The Coastal Shipping tanker Havelstern. (CSL website)

The ships will still have about four Canadian crew members, with another 10 cheaper foreign workers hired for the work in the Caribbean. White said it would cost a lot of money to keep an all-Canadian crew.

He said the number of workers affected would be less than the union's estimate of 60 to 100, because the ships would otherwise be idle with just seven crew members aboard.

Cheap labour

"In light of extremely difficult trading conditions within the international market, owners have decided to reflag your vessel Canada flag to that of the Marshall Islands," read a notice posted Nov. 17 aboard the vessel Alsterstern.

"Please … display this notice publicly onboard which serves as a layoff notice accordingly under the governing crew agreement."

A worker told CBC that crew members were let go two days after the layoff notice was posted on the Alsterstern while drydocking in Las Palmas, in the Canary Islands.

He also said that tanker has already been reflagged.

A layoff notice posted aboard the Alsterstern. A worker says the crew was given two days' notice before being laid off while dry docked in Las Palmas, Spain. (Submitted)

"They have decided to change the flag to flag of conveniences, what we call FOCs, in order to get cheap labour on board their vessels," Caron said.

A worker for the company says the new workers being brought aboard are Filipino.

"Why can't they keep the Canadian crews? We're good at what we're doing. We know the ships, we know the business," Caron said.

"Now they are changing the flag to get a brand new whole crew that have no idea how to sail those vessels … they have no break, no vacation, they got nothing. It's slavery."

The company says the vessels would be reflagged and crewed by Canadians when they return to the country in the spring and operate in Newfoundland and Labrador and Nunavut.

Workers affected

But a worker for the company, who spoke with the CBC on condition of anonymity, said Canadian workers have traditionally worked international contracts for the company under the Canadian flag.

He said up until a couple of weeks ago, everything seemed normal.

"It's a terrible time, a month before Christmas and they just say you're gone and that's it … heartless."

"Everyone I speak to, they say the same thing: they're devastated, they loved working there and they thought they were going to be working there the rest of their lives."

Alsterstern is the first Coastal Shipping tanker to reflag from the Canadian flag to the Marshall Islands flag. (Facebook/James Glynn)

He said the company is replacing workers who have been with the company for 30 years for a cheaper option.

"The bottom line is we're being replaced by people who are being paid slave wages and they're working six months straight. I think it's coming down to they don't want to crew-change people overseas every six weeks, because if we were working, they'd have to crew-change us every six weeks," the worker said.

"Some guys are going to go bankrupt and those guys are going to lose their house. Bottom line is everyone's going to have to find new jobs right now."

With files from Peter Cowan


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