Why Canada leads in global fight against exploitation of marine workers

OPINION

By James Given, president of the Seafarers’ International Union of Canada, and chair of the cabotage task force at the International Transport Workers’ Federation. FEB. 4, 2019

It wasn’t until late 2018 that a functional system of only granting permits to temporary foreign workers, as a last resort, was put in place.

Cabotage mandates that ships operating in Canadian waters must use Canadian or permanent resident workers and can only use foreign workers when Canadians are unavailable.

While many of us returned to stable employment after the holiday break, 80 hard-working Australian seafarers returned to work only to find their employment contracts terminated.

How could this happen? Why did it happen? Unfortunately, the Australian government has failed to protect the domestic maritime workers who dedicate their lives to this demanding work.

Despite calls from labour unions, the workers they represent and political stakeholders, the government did not enforce cabotage laws, which protect the jobs of maritime workers.

Cabotage law ensures that domestic transportation—the movement of goods or people between two points in the same country—is reserved for vessels registered under the flag of that country with employment conditions that are regulated by domestic labour laws.

Canada is renowned globally for our progressive cabotage laws. The Coasting Trade Act requires that no foreign ship may engage in cabotage without a license. Cabotage mandates that ships operating in Canadian waters must use Canadian or permanent resident workers and can only use foreign workers when Canadians are unavailable.

Those regulations also help promote continued investments in the Canadian fleet of vessels and Canadian seafarers, and ensures the timely and safe transportation of Canadian cargoes. The law protects our economy and our environment by ensuring we have the best-trained, most-qualified sailors navigating Canada’s waterways.

In the absence of enforced cabotage laws, Australia has allowed shipping companies to have foreign ships and crews regularly operate in their country, many of which are known for exploiting low-wage foreign labour. The result? Thousands of Australian sailors losing their jobs.

It was just this past December when the SIU of Canada hosted a delegation of Australian representatives. They came to Canada on a fact-finding mission to learn how we were able to preserve and strengthen this important policy.

As president of the Seafarers’ International Union of Canada (SIU), I told our friends from Australia that Canada’s strong cabotage laws took years of advocacy. In fact, it wasn’t until late 2018 that a functional system of only granting temporary foreign worker permits to foreign crew, as a last resort, was put in place.

The SIU also continues to fight for stricter enforcement of cabotage law here at home. There have been several instances where we have caught foreign-flagged ships operating on waivers—wherein foreign crew members retained on board were being paid only a fraction of what is owed to them under the regulations of the Temporary Foreign Worker program—and the government had no idea.

Without proper monitoring from the government, Canadian seafaring jobs will be compromised, as operators attempt to drive down costs by exploiting foreign workers. The SIU works hard to ensure instances like this are prevented before they happen, but alignment with government agencies is essential, and we work closely with Transport Canada and Employment and Social Development Canada to ensure they are aware, and they act appropriately.

To borrow a line from the government itself: we must do better. Establishing and maintaining an effective monitoring and enforcement mechanism is essential to ensuring full compliance requirements of temporary foreign workers and the Coasting Trade Act. This will ensure domestic jobs remain protected, and that any foreign labour working in Canada will receive the prevailing industry wages and protections under Canadian labour standards.

Furthermore, as the government explores new trade corridors, cabotage remains on the table for negotiation. This was the case when the government negotiated CETA. To make sure our workers remained protected, the SIU fought hard to ensure concessions made on cabotage were limited to very specific activities—and we succeeded. While cabotage was off the table during recent NAFTA renegotiations, it remains under threat as Canada pursues trade talks with Asia-Pacific countries and others.
Cabotage should never be on the negotiating table. Canada’s workers should always come first.

We remain unwavering in our commitment to protecting cabotage in Canada and around the globe. While some political actors seek to undermine this important regime, we cannot allow governments in Canada or Australia to compromise our seafarers’ livelihoods in favour of cheap labour. We will continue our relentless advocacy to ensure Canadian seafarers’ jobs are safe, secure, and stable.

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