A long-standing legal battle between the Seafarers’ International Union of Canada (SIUC) and the federal government over foreign workers engaged in shipping in Canadian waters was settled on Feb. 15, mere days before a lengthy court case was due to start.
The SIUC filed 42 lawsuits in 2015 alleging that instead of providing Canadian seafarers with the opportunity to work, and in violation of the Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP), the government of Canada was systematically issuing work permits to non-Canadian crewmembers of hundreds of foreign vessels engaged in shipping in Canada. The SIUC found evidence that some of these temporary foreign workers made as little as $2.41 per hour while working in Canada when they should have been paid the Canadian prevailing wage. In July 2016, the SIUC filed an additional 13 lawsuits with similar allegations.
That same month, the government of Canada admitted that it improperly issued work permits to the foreign crewmembers of New England, a Marshall Islands-flagged oil tanker that engaged in shipping in Canada. The union argued that the permits were in direct violation of the Coasting Trade Act, which requires that ships carrying passengers or goods between Canadian ports (cabotage) may only use foreign workers if no qualified Canadian workers are available.
“In the last two years, we’ve seen 4,000 temporary foreign workers on ships that came in under a Transport Canada waiver to run cabotage,” SIUC President James Given told Professional Mariner. “We have been running at 11.5 percent unemployment over the last two years. That is just us, not including the non-union seafarers.”
Last year, the SIUC delivered a submission on TFWP and its impact on Canadian seafarers to the federal government’s Standing Committee on Human Resources, Skills and Social Development. The union said the program, together with the growing use of foreign-flagged vessels in Canada, has cost Canadians more than 2,100 jobs to date.
In the settlement, Employment and Social Development Canada (ESDC) agreed to terms that include the following:
• Conducting a full review of the agency’s policies and procedures regarding the employment of temporary foreign workers on foreign-flagged vessels engaged in Canadian domestic shipping. The agency will consult with SIUC on the format of stakeholder discussions and the union will have a seat at the table.
• Immediately issuing a directive to ESDC officers to enforce provisions requiring employers who are looking to hire foreign workers to crew vessels to first advertise the positions to Canadian seafarers to prove that there are none available.
• Carefully considering and commencing investigations into the SIUC’s allegations that seafarers admitted to work in Canada as temporary foreign workers are not being paid the proper Canadian prevailing wage and, in some cases, are being paid below the Canadian minimum wage.
“After 18 months of litigation, I am very happy to see the government finally agree to what we sought all along — enforcement and a review of the rules with the full participation of SIU Canada,” Given said in a prepared statement. “We are confident that the terms of the settlement will lead to hundreds of jobs for Canadian seafarers who are qualified and available to crew marine vessels of all sizes and types.”