The actions of the Puget Sound Inspector from the International Transport Workers Federation (ITF) with support from members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) Local 23 helped to protect a group of vulnerable seafarers who were being grossly underpaid and who feared for their safety after receiving threats for standing up for their rights.
On February 7, seafarers aboard the ASL Uranus (IMO: 9317511), an ocean-going grain ship docked at an export grain facility in the Port of Tacoma, contacted ITF Inspector Jeff Engels to report that they were not being paid the proper wages. The crew, a mix of Vietnamese, Chinese, and Burmese nationals, are employed by a third-party hiring agency based in Yangon, Myanmar. The ship is owned by Agricore Group, a China-based company, and is registered in Liberia.
Engels communicated with the ship’s owner and agent to secure the payment of back wages for the crew, and on February 8, the company agreed to pay the improperly withheld wages. Engels said that before receiving their pay, the crew reported to the ITF that their families had already been contacted by the shipping line and hiring agents and told that they would need to “return the money.”
A shipping agent delivered US$73,458 in cash to the ship on February 8 and payments were made to the 15 seafarers. As a safeguard, the ship’s captain signed a declaration agreeing that the crew and their families would not be blacklisted, harassed, intimidated, or threatened for asserting their basic right to be paid the rate they were owed; guaranteeing their safe passage; and promising to repatriate the crew in their next port of call. The payment and declaration were witnessed by the ITF and management representatives from the grain export facility.
Despite these guarantees, Engels said the crew reported to the ITF that they were receiving threats on their cell phone and told that they had to return the money to the captain once the ship left U.S. waters. The ship was scheduled to depart Tacoma for China on February 10 in the afternoon. According to Engels, the crew expressed concern that without the protection of the ITF, their lives may be in danger once the ship reached China.
The dockside unions, including the ILWU, drafted letters to the Washington State congressional delegation, the U.S. Coast Guard, and law enforcement in case the crew needed to be escorted off the ship for their safety and flown directly home.
Local 23 President Jared Faker said that if the crew decided they wanted extraction, the nearly 2,000 ILWU longshore workers in Tacoma would not have waited for all the red tape to clear to make this happen.
“Seafarers are an invisible link in the global chain and are vulnerable to abuse and exploitation,” Faker said. “Workers in the Port of Tacoma were not going to let this vessel go anywhere while these workers’ lives were in peril.”
With support from the tug workers, the pilots, and longshore line handlers, the ship stayed put until the issues were resolved to the satisfaction of the crew. Engels said a representative from the Liberian Flag State went aboard the vessel, and after a four-hour interview with the crew, issued five deficiencies of the Maritime Labor Convention, prompting a detainment by the Liberian flag state.
On February 10 the ITF, ship owners, and Liberian Flag State reached an agreement with the vessel’s owners and their manning agent to protect the wages of the seafarers and guarantee their safety.
Engels presented the crew with the finalized agreement; the crew was able to decide for themselves whether to disembark in the U.S. or continue to China and then return home from there. After discussing the new safeguards, which included continued monitoring by the ITF to protect their safety and wages, the crew voted to continue on their journey.
“This outcome was possible because of the support of multiple organizations, working around the clock, and because strong labor unions like ILWU Local 23 were willing to stick up for the seafarers,” said Engels.
“The ship owners and agents ‘did the right thing’ because they want to continue doing business in Tacoma and other ports on the West Coast, and other ports around the world where dockworkers are organized,” Faker added. “We will not tolerate the abuse or mistreatment of seafarers. We will continue to monitor the safety of these seafarers through the ITF to make sure the crew make it home safely with their wages.”
Photo credit: ITF