Canadian seafarers union files court challenge over foreign sailors

OTTAWA – The Harper government may have thought it had squelched the political fire that raged this spring over the temporary foreign workers program, but a legal challenge filed Tuesday in Federal Court threatens to rekindle the controversy.

The Seafarers International Union of Canada is asking a judge in Vancouver to review temporary worker permits granted to foreign sailors on international ships that have operated in Canadian waters.

David Borins, the labour group’s lawyer, says it has already filed 16 applications for judicial reviews and plans on challenging dozens more.

Thanks to a high-profile makeover earlier this year, Canada’s controversial temporary foreign workers program allows labour market impact assessments on request and requires employers to demonstrate no Canadians were available to take the jobs.

The court challenge claims the tribunal charged with issuing the permits has been unjustly exempting shipping companies from the assessments at a time when there are hundreds of qualified, unemployed Canadian crew members who could have filled those jobs.

The law says foreign-flagged ships can operate between ports in Canadian coastal water, as long as they use domestic crews, but Borins says the federal government has increasingly given shipping companies a free pass.

To get around the labour assessment, the government grants a waiver claiming, among others things, that there is significant economic benefit to Canada — a procedure known as a C-10 exemption.

“What we’re saying is: That is an improperly granted exemption,” said Borins.

“There’s no economic benefit to Canadians by leaving (Canadian sailors) unemployed, and there is no economic benefit to Canadians to have foreign workers being paid a fraction of the minimum wage in this country.”

Employment contracts for crew members on foreign tankers show they are required to work a minimum of 48 hours a week before overtime kicks in, and that the rate varies between $2 and $8 per hour — one-tenth of what Canadians would be paid, said Borins.

In a statement Tuesday, the seafarers union estimated as many as 2,100 Canadian jobs have been lost over the last few years as a result of the government not enforcing the requirements.

“The government of Canada is wilfully ignoring the law and giving up on qualified, ready-to-work Canadian workers,” said union president Jim Given.

Since the beginning of 2013, the federal government has allowed up to 140 foreign ships to work in Canadian waters, and the court case has the potential to end up challenging thousands of temporary worker permits, Borins added.

The lawsuit cites the Cypriot-flagged tanker Sparto, which hauled oil between the Maritimes and Montreal this summer, but the union lawyer said further court applications will go after other vessels.

The tankers and the shipping companies are not the focus of the court challenge, only the federal government, Borins said.

Employment and Social Development Canada was contacted, but no one was immediately available to comment.

Given said the union has sent a number of letters, faxes and emails to federal officials and agencies, but there has been no response.