Union urges B.C. Ferries to denounce Fijian shipping company

The union representing B.C. Ferries’ workers has called on the company to condemn and sever ties with Fijian-based Goundar Shipping after allegations that company violated the human rights of some of its employees.

In a letter sent Thursday evening to B.C. Ferries chief executive Mark Collins, B.C. Ferry Services Inc. board chair John Horning and B.C. Ferry Authority Board chair Lecia Stewart, the union urged the company to condemn Goundar Shipping and refuse to do any more business with founder George Goundar after an investigation by the International Transport Workers’ Federation.

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In an interview, B.C. Ferry and Marine Workers’ Union president Graeme Johnston said they have taken up the cause of Goundar’s workers because three of the shipping company’s vessels — Queen of Prince Rupert, Queen of Chilliwack, and Queen of Nanaimo — were purchased from B.C. Ferries and Goundar was at one time a manager at B.C. Ferries.

“We share solidarity with other seafarers around the world and when we see B.C. Ferries vessels being used in a way that is akin to human trafficking it’s going to be something that causes a lot of hard feelings among our members and stir up a lot of passions,” he said.

Johnston said the union feels it is not acceptable for B.C. Ferries to have anything to do with Goundar and hopes the corporation will join the union and speak out against the Fijian firm.

“If we can all conspire to create better working conditions for folks who are being treated so poorly, then we have done the job we are out there to do,” he said.

Following a two-week investigation, the International Transport Workers’ Federation claimed it found examples of Goundar Shipping tricking Filipino seafarers into flying to Fiji to operate and maintain a fleet of passenger and cargo ferries.

Australian-based ITF investigator Sarah Maguire said workers were promised decent wages and conditions, but once in Fiji and stranded, the workers were told they would earn 60 to 70 per cent less than agreed.

In an interview from Queensland, Maguire told the Times Colonist that Goundar Shipping has been keeping the workers as “virtual slaves” as they cannot afford to fly home and Goundar refuses to pay their passage, instead offering only to keep them at work on their vessels.

Maguire said some of the workers have basically been held hostage at sea.

“What Gandour is doing is systemic abuse of seafarers,” she said. “It’s planned, methodical, it’s not an accident or oversight.”

She said the investigation has spurred the Fijian Ministry of Employment to investigate, while the Immigration Ministry is investigating workers without valid visas. “We’re hoping that investigation will come to the right conclusion,” she said. “If we don’t get a reasonable outcome from the Fijian government we are prepared to take it to the Fijian courts.”

“Right now, many of Fiji’s ferries are being operated by workers who don’t want to be there. They haven’t wanted to be there for more than a year, but they can’t break free from the trap that Goundar Shipping has set for them with its underpayments and lies about flights home,” she said.

Maguire said having the union representing B.C. Ferries workers step up makes a difference in cases like these.

“It adds to the pressure on not only the Fijian government to act, but the Filipino government as well,” she said, noting the Philippines needs to take more notice and fight back against the exploitation of its people in industries all over the world.

In a statement, B.C. Ferries would only say that over the past 10 years Goundar Shipping purchased three retired vessels from B.C. Ferries through an open market process.

“In approximately the same period, other companies bought nine other retired vessels from B.C. Ferries,” the statement read. “B.C. Ferries adheres to fair labour practices and the highest of safety standards within our own operations and believes in the value of these practices world-wide. B.C. Ferries is unaware of and cannot comment on labour practices at any other organization.”

Goundar Shipping did not immediately return requests for comment Friday.

aduffy@timescolonist.com

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