By Alex Binkley

Seafarers’ International Union of Canada (SIU) has added two cabinet ministers to its legal action against Canadian Border Services Agency for granting temporary work permits to foreign sailors on foreign ships delivering cargo between Canadian ports. Immigration Minister Chris Alexander and Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney were named in supplementary documents filed in Federal Court Sept. 14 in connection with a legal action started in early September by the union.

“The Harper government continues to misuse its authority,” says SIU President Jim Given. It grants temporary foreign work permits to foreign sailors without checking whether Canadian sailors are available as the law requires.

“Qualified Canadian maritime workers have lost more than two thousand jobs,” Given added. “They have been replaced by temporary foreign workers earning just $2 an hour.”

SIU has repeatedly complained about the foreign workers to the two ministers as well as Employment Minister Pierre Poilievre and officials with three government agencies. “To date, no acknowledgement has been made and no action has been taken.” The union contends that Canadian law requires the federal government to verify that no Canadian sailors are available to work on foreign ships that have been granted exemptions under the Coastal Trading Act to move domestic cargo between Canadian ports. Only then can the ships use non-Canadian workers, the law says.

Since 2013, SIU estimates that approximately 4,000 temporary foreign work permits have been issued by the Government of Canada for domestic shipping despite 25 per cent of Canadian maritime workers being currently unemployed, Given notes.

So far, the union has released the names of three foreign vessels working in Canadian waters with foreign crews. They are Amalthea, a Greek flagged ship transporting oil on the St. Lawrence river between Montreal and Atlantic Canada in August, New England, a chemical/oil tanker operating in the Maritimes last week and the Cyprian flagged Sparto.

Since 2013, over 260 special permits have been issued to foreign ships to engage in cabotage in Canada. The fact that a ship is able to operate in Canada does not provide a legal right for the crew to work in Canada.

In its legal filing, the union says that like all non-permanent residents or non-Canadian citizens, foreign crew must first be issued valid work permits before they work in Canada. The federal government has routinely been issuing work permits to foreign crew, without first requiring a Labour Market Impact Assessment determining, among other things, whether there are qualified and available Canadians to perform the work.

The next step will be for the Court to schedule a hearing on the matter.

Under the Coasting Trade Act, a shipper can apply for an exemption from the requirement to use a Canadian vessel if a suitable isn’t shown to be unavailable. Then the foreign owners have to get work permits for its crew. Again the law says they are to be granted only when qualified Canadians aren’t available, Given says. CBSA did not respond to a query about the suit.