Local labor leaders and activists joined a virtual press conference Tuesday evening hosted by the Pacific Coast Coalition for Seafarers, aimed at rallying support for cargo ship workers. They are calling for action to help an estimated 300,000 seafarers who have spent months stranded at sea, unable to disembark from their ships due to restrictions stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic.
The coalition was created in June as a collaboration between members of several local groups including the Portland Seafarers Mission, the Fort Vancouver Seafarers Center, the Portland Committee for Human Rights in the Philippines, Migrante Portland and the Vancouver chapter of the Philippine-US Solidarity Organization.
International law limits the length of seafarer work contracts to no more than 12 months, but travel restrictions, lockdowns and port closures have disrupted the usual turnover process for ship crews.
Many seafarers have been prevented from disembarking or returning to their home countries since the pandemic began. The speakers at Tuesday’s event contended that some ship captains have used the situation to coerce workers into continuing to work past the end of their contracts.
The United Nations spoke out about the problem in June. A press release from the Secretary-General’s Office stated that some workers had already been at sea for 15 months and called the issue a “growing humanitarian and safety crisis.”
There are about 1.2 million seafarers globally. The estimate of 300,000 marooned workers comes from the International Transport Workers’ Federation, a global group of unions representing transportation workers. Federation inspector Martin Larson was one of the speakers at Tuesday’s online event.
Larson and several others speakers said that seafarers already face difficult and sometimes exploitative working conditions, and the pandemic situation is exacerbating existing industry problems such as hazardous working conditions, delayed or unpaid wages and illegal recruitment practices.
“I have personally been involved in every one of these cases here in Portland, in our port,” Larson said.
Emma Martinez, from the Pacific Northwest chapter of the International Migrants Alliance, said that the shipping industry was caught unprepared for the pandemic and seafarers were left particularly vulnerable to contracting the novel coronavirus.
She discussed existing worker protection failures stemming from the practice of flying a “flag of convenience,” in which ship owners will register their vessels in foreign countries in order to skirt labor laws and other regulations.
The group put a particular emphasis on the difficulties faced by Filipino workers, who make up a more than a quarter of the global seafarer community and a major portion of the population of seafarers on vessels that dock at Vancouver or Portland.
Approximately 20,000 Filipino seafarers have lost their jobs during the pandemic, according to Fredi Guerrero of Migrante Portland, and tens of thousands more are stranded due to what he characterized as the Philippines government’s lack of action to create a clear pathway for repatriation amid the pandemic.
Cager Clabaugh, former president of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 4, which represents longshore workers at the Port of Vancouver, led the audience on an impromptu virtual tour of the port, discussing the hardships faced by vessel workers.
Port of Vancouver commissioner Don Orange also joined the speaker lineup, stressing that he was speaking on behalf of himself rather than the port. Recalling his own work history as a long-haul truck driver, he spoke about the essential role that seafarers play in the global economy and the loneliness and isolation that can come with being far away from home for long stretches of time.
“It’s time to stand up for these forgotten workers,” he said.