Seafaring groups push Canada on crew repatriations as ship detained in Halifax
'I don't think anyone in Canada can imagine the situation they've been in'
A container ship was detained in Halifax by federal officials this past weekend after workers complained they hadn't been able to leave the vessel in 13 months — one of many examples of seafarers being kept on ships well past the end of their contracts during the COVID-19 pandemic.
This comes as a number of maritime labour groups and unions sent a letter to Transport Canada on Monday, calling on the government to set a firm date for enforcing repatriation rules that require shipping companies to allow workers to return home to see their families.
The letter said there are more than 400,000 seafarers around the world serving up to nine months longer than the maximum period set out by the Maritime Labour Convention, which is 11 months on board.
"I don't think anyone in Canada can imagine the situation they've been in," Karl Risser, an inspector with the International Transport Workers Federation in Halifax, told CBC's Information Morning.
"We really have to put our foot down and say enough is enough because these guys are overwhelmed. They're experiencing mental-health challenges. We're stretching the limits of this."
Pandemic restrictions in many countries also mean crew members can't get off their ships at ports of call to enjoy a change of scenery and take a break from life on board.
Canada is one of the few countries that has exempted crews from travel restrictions and allows a controlled, four-hour shore leave at Canadian ports. But many other countries, and even shipping companies themselves, may have more strict rules, keeping crews on board to avoid members catching the virus.
Risser said they received a complaint about the Taipei Trader in Halifax on Friday morning. He went aboard on Saturday to do an inspection.
He said the crew, most of whom were from Myanmar, had initially signed a seven-month contract. But once that expired, they were continuously given one-month extensions with "no end in sight."
Risser said he and Transport Canada worked with the crew until there was a proper plan in place for them to be repatriated. He said such workers are isolated, marginalized and often their complaints go unheard.
On Monday morning, the Taipei Trader was allowed to leave Halifax. Transport Canada said the ship was released once it was verified that the employer had provided valid seafarer employment agreements and a flag state approved repatriation plan.
Since last spring, travel restrictions, a fear of COVID outbreaks and the quarantine-related costs of changing crews have all contributed to seafarers being stranded on cargo ships around the world. Many of them are from China, India and the Philippines.
In the letter addressed to Transport Minister Marc Garneau, the maritime labour groups said the problem is now a marine security issue, as overworked seafarers pose a safety risk.
The Australian Maritime Safety Authority announced a firm deadline of Feb. 28, 2021, to begin fully enforcing the 11-month limit of service. The group is asking Canada to set out its own deadline.
"These labour supply countries where these really seafarers come from, they don't necessarily look after their people," Risser said. "So when they're in Canada, it's so important that we support them and let them know that we are a voice for their grievances."
Allison St-Jean, press secretary for the transportation minister, said in an email that Canada has adopted a pragmatic approach to protect the rights of seafarers and enforce compliance.
"Where seafarers' employment agreements have been extended, in all cases, the seafarer's consent remains a fundamental requirement. A valid seafarers' employment agreement must remain in force until the seafarer is repatriated," she said.
"Transport Canada continues to evaluate the situation and take appropriate measures to protect the health and wellbeing of seafarers delivering essential services to Canadians."
In November, Garneau announced the establishment of the National Seafarers' Welfare Board, in collaboration with the maritime community.
Challenges across the shipping sector
David Wilson, head of communications with Lomar Shipping Limited, the company that owns the Taipei Trader, said in an email that the challenge of getting crews home is one shared by businesses worldwide.
"Many ports and countries are simply closed to crew changes and even when permitted, with strict quarantine restrictions attached to them, reduced commercial flight schedules are not always available to then get crews home," Wilson said.
"We have even had to go to the considerable expense of chartering aircraft to repatriate crew from other vessels."
Wilson said the Taipei Trader is "a good example of these difficulties."
"[It] was temporarily delayed in Halifax while our third party ship manager provided details of the repatriation plan that was already being put in place — both to the authorities and the crew," he said.
"Once provided the vessel was quickly released for operations and we are delighted to confirm the crew transfer is due to take place when the vessel arrives in the Caribbean later this week."
Risser said the vessel will continue to be tracked to make sure the crew gets home.
"You could see the change on Saturday morning. They were happy. I got a bunch of thumbs up from them. They were on the Internet talking to their families, saying we'll be getting home soon."
With files from CBC's Information Morning