By Alex Binkley

There were plenty of headlines about the terrible living conditions of crews stuck on ships in ports around the world because of COVID. What was mostly missed was mention of the work of a lot of volunteers working to try to ease the situation for these men, a virtual session of the annual Association of Canadian Port Authorities conference heard.

Peter Lehay, Co-Chair of Canada’s Seafarers’ Welfare Board and Canadian Coordinator for the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITWF), said some crews were stuck for more than a year on their ship because COVID regulations prevented crew changes. ITWF received lots of messages from families about these men and did what it could to aid them, he said. About 30 per cent of the ships involved in ocean shipping violated the contracts with their crews. “The industry knows these workers are not used to having basic human rights and a lot of shipowners took advantage of them.” The result was many unattended medical issues and suicides, including that of a 19-year-old man who jumped off a ship in Vancouver, he said. The workers knew if they didn’t stay on the ships and stop complaining, they would be blacklisted among ship operators and never get hired again in shipping.

ITWF has inspected more than 7,000 ships around the world since the pandemic started and discovered there were millions of dollars in unpaid wages, he said. Helping the stranded crews became a prime role for Seafarers Missions and other volunteer groups that did what they could to help them, said Jason Zuidema, Executive Director, North American Maritime Ministry Association (NAMMA) and International Christian Maritime Association (ICMA). “We worked with Port Authorities in Canada to help the seafarers,” he said. It took a lot of volunteers to get supplies and other goods needed by the crews because of their extended time at sea. The volunteers also worked to get crews vaccinated against COVID, which required solving a lot of logistical problems with health authorities. He credited the Port Authorities with helping the effort of the volunteers but urged them to do more.

Lehay said many ships are detained in Canada for a variety of reasons and COVID just complicated the situation. One example was a ship stuck at a container terminal pier for 16 days because one crew member was found to have COVID. Not only was the ship delayed, the operation of the terminal was disrupted by having to work around it.

Transport Canada is good at detecting mechanical problems with vessels but not as effective when it comes to crew conditions. The department is working on that, he said. Fixing the problem also requires the co-operation of ship-owners, charterers, technical managers, agents, terminal operators, industry associations and international inspectors. Debbie Murray, ACPA’s Director, Policy and Regulatory Affairs, and moderator of the session, said Transport Canada has started to become more involved in the welfare of ships’ crews.