Nova Scotia

Seafarers 'in dire need' of COVID-19 vaccination, says union

The Seafarers International Union of Canada wants cargo crews to get the COVID-19 vaccine after health-care workers and seniors get their shots because of the risk the virus poses to shipping.

Union presidents wants cargo crews to be vaccinated after health-care workers and seniors

Deacon Dileep Athaide visits with seafarers onboard bulk carriers at Westshore Terminals in B.C. in 2019. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

The union that represents cargo ship crews in Canada says its members are in desperate need to be vaccinated for COVID-19.

The Seafarers International Union of Canada says that is because of the potential danger of an outbreak onboard a vessel and a shortage of workers to replace crew members who get sick.  

There is limited space to physically distance on a ship and there are few medical resources on a vessel to deal with a COVID-19 outbreak should it occur.  

"We don't want to interrupt the vaccinations right now of those front-line workers and our elderly that are absolutely in dire need, but we're in dire need as well," said union president Jim Given.

The union represents seafarers who work inside Canada and abroad.

Jim Given is president of the Seafarers International Union of Canada. (Submitted by Seafarers International Union of Canada)

Given wants his crews to be given the vaccine after health-care workers and seniors get their shots. 

Many seafarers spend three months aboard ship, with one month off, but some crews spend up to nine months on a vessel. Some workers have stayed on board even longer during the pandemic.

There have only been a handful of COVID-19 outbreaks on ships so far, and one seafarer has died as a result, said Given. He's worried that could get worse if his members aren't vaccinated soon. 

It's incredibly difficult to cope with a COVID-19 outbreak on a ship, according to Desai Shan, an assistant professor at Memorial University of Newfoundland. She has been studying COVID-19's impact on seafarers. 

"They are extremely vulnerable in this pandemic," she said. "Considering they are important, and also vulnerable …seafarers getting priority for the vaccine is a fair request.

"The medical resources and support seafarers would get on board are far, far limited compared to land-based working environments."   

Athaide waves to seafarers onboard bulk carriers in B.C. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Shan said countries like China and Singapore have already started vaccinating their seafarers because they recognize the importance of keeping their supply chains moving.

"We carry most of the goods people use everyday, whether it be the raw materials to make the product or the product itself. We carry about 90 per cent of everything you touch and see everyday," said Given. 

A seafarer's job is so important it is considered essential. Given said the union wants to sit down with provincial and federal officials to come up with a plan to get its members vaccinated soon. 

Each individual province and territory decides how it will roll out its vaccinations. 

No province or territory has given seafarers priority, said Given.

The CMA CGM Libra is the largest container ship ever to stop in Halifax. The vessel holds approximately 11,400 shipping containers. (Port of Halifax)

Nova Scotia has taken an age-based approach.

"We recognize there is interest from Nova Scotians who want to be prioritized to receive the vaccine, but we know the single biggest risk to COVID-19 patients is age," Marla MacInnis, a spokesperson for Nova Scotia's Department of Health, said in an email. 

She said eventually all Nova Scotians who want to get vaccinated will have the opportunity. 

Transport Canada had no comment on whether seafarers should be prioritized for vaccination. 

But spokesperson Sau Sau Liu said in an email that "Canada remains a strong advocate for the safety and welfare of seafarers and maritime workers."

A truck passes by some of the many containers that it tows on a daily basis at Vancouver's port. (David Horemans/CBC)

Liu said Transport Canada officials participate on a national seafarers' welfare board that advises the federal government on issues related to the well-being of seafarers.

Given said that's not good enough.

"It spreads so quickly and if we end up in a situation where we do get outbreaks on these ships the other aspect of it is there is nobody to replace the people to get the cargo moving again," he said.    

There is a shortage of seafarers in Canada right now, and with few people to replace them if they get sick, that could mean huge delays in the movement of goods and a slowdown in the Canadian economy, said Given.  

There are about 30,000 people across Canada employed as seafarers who directly or indirectly support 260,000 jobs and put $36 billion into the Canadian economy, he said.

Many seafarers spend three months at a time on cargo ships like this one, but some can spend nine months aboard a vessel. That time onboard ship has been stretched out even further for some during the pandemic. (Steve Farmer/Port of Halifax)

The country can't afford a slow down in the shipping industry, he said, especially with the busy season set to start in the spring when the Great Lakes thaw and ship traffic picks up.  

"We've got to find a way to get seafarers vaccinated so they have the mobility and the safety to do their jobs," said Given. 

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