Nova Scotia

Canadian officials asked to detain ship headed to Halifax to allow workers to go home

Six crew members on a shipping vessel headed for Halifax, N.S., have been stuck on board for more than a year, according to an inspector with the International Transport Workers Federation.

Some crew members have been working on Tropic Hope for well over a year

Karl Risser, an inspector with the International Transport Workers Federation, boarded the Tropic Hope on Sept. 20 and says he's worried for crew members. (Karl Risser)

Several crew members on a ship headed for Halifax have been stuck on board for about 14 months, according to an inspector who wants Canadian officials to detain it until the workers are allowed to go home. 

The Tropic Hope is expected to arrive in port on Sunday. Karl Risser, who works with the International Transport Workers Federation, will be waiting. 

He first boarded the ship on Sept. 20 after a complaint from an international seafarer's wife who was worried about her husband's mental and physical well-being.

But despite Transport Canada noting a "deficiency" with the ship last month, it was allowed to leave and continue its route to Florida, Puerto Rico and back to Halifax. 

"Anybody can imagine what it would be like to be stuck with the same 17 guys for 14 months in a steel can bobbing around the Atlantic, not seeing your family," Risser told CBC's Information Morning on Friday. 

"They're loyal to their company and they want to do what they can to keep going, but anyone who works 14 months straight away from their families is pushing the limits." 

Hundreds of thousands of seafarers, many of whom are from China, India and the Philippines, have been stranded on cargo ships around the world since the start of the pandemic. Travel restrictions, the fear of outbreaks and the cost of changing crew during a global crisis have all contributed to the problem. 

The crisis is more urgent than ever as many countries lock down again with a rise in COVID-19 cases, Risser said.

He boarded the Tropic Hope in September and spoke with the captain and some of the crew. He said he learned six crew members had been on board since August and September of last year, well past their contracts.

"These seafarers signed up for nine-month contracts," he said. "They completed their obligations, and it's this company's obligation to get them home and we got to do everything in our power to make sure that they live up to that obligation." 

Helen Glenn, manager of the Mission to Seafarers in Halifax, received an email from the seafarer's wife that prompted Transport Canada and Risser to investigate. 

"She indicated that her husband was on a vessel where their provisions were not adequate, and that they were not getting paid for overtime, that their contract was expired … and they couldn't come home," said Glenn.

Company says 40% of fleet repatriated

Tropic Hope is a shipping vessel that's owned by U.S.-based Tropical Shipping. 

A spokesperson for the company said it's been working with Transport Canada on the issue. 

"Tropical Shipping has repatriated over 40 per cent of its fleet and has also granted labor contract extensions for those crew members who want to remain onboard the vessel at this time," Michael Wardwell, general manager of marine operations, wrote in an email.

Hundreds of thousands of seafarers, many of whom are from China, India and the Philippines, have been stranded on cargo ships around the world since the start of the pandemic. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

"Tropical Shipping is a private company, has over 90 per cent employee retention rate with many seafarers having over 20 years longevity and in several instances with over 30 years in our company."   

Transport Canada also said it's aware of the concerns with the crew and that on Sept. 20 an inspector found "a deficiency under the Maritime Labour Convention (MLC) and instructed the master of the vessel to rectify the deficiency."

Transport Canada said it will continue to monitor the situation and has also informed the United States Coast Guard.

Transport Minister Marc Garneau says Canada is committed to facilitating crew exchanges. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Last week, Transport Minister Marc Garneau told the U.N. that Canada is committed to facilitating crew changes and "protecting the rights and dignity of seafarers who are at the front-lines of this pandemic."

Seafarers are deemed essential workers in Canada and are allowed controlled shore leave. The federal government has also tried to make it easier for seafarers to return home during the pandemic by expediting the visa process.

But while the new policies sound good on paper, they don't always work in practice, said Desai Shan, an assistant professor at Memorial University in Newfoundland.

Part of the problem, according to Shan, is that it can be very costly for shipping companies to get crew members home and a new crew ready to replace them given COVID-19 travel barriers.

While Risser hopes Transport Canada detains the Tropic Hope, Shan said that tactic could help but it could also backfire like it has in other countries such as Australia.

"If you started to detain them, but you do not provide support for crew exchanges or help to reduce the policy barriers … then that might be not good for our reputation as a port state," she said. 

She's studying COVID-19's impact on seafarers and has interviewed several people involved in the shipping industry. She believes the best way forward is for all levels of government to have more "maritime awareness" and work together to streamline crew exchanges on the ground. 

"I can see that things could change, although it's very difficult," she said. 

Risser said he will be waiting for the ship to arrive on Sunday with some volunteers who speak Filipino so he can communicate with the crew and find out how they're doing. 

"They work in an industry where they can be blacklisted very easily and never work for that company again, so they understand that threat," Risser said. "So it's very difficult for them to stand up, but we got to stand up for them in Canada."

With files from CBC's Information Morning