OTTAWA — The Seafarers International Union of Canada is preparing to take the federal government to court over the use of foreign sailors - some of whom are allegedly being paid as little as $2 per hour - on internationally-flagged ships in Canadians waters.
The labour group, which represents unlicensed sailors in all of the country's coastal waters, has been firing warning shots for month over the growing refusal of shipping agents to hire Canadian crews - something to which the federal government has allegedly has turned a blind eye.
The Canadian Press has learned the union intends to ask the Federal Court in Vancouver on Tuesday for a judicial review of the practice of issuing the foreign sailors temporary work permits.
The union points to the 60,000 ton, Greek-owned tanker Almathea, which was just in the Port of Montreal and licensed to be transporting crude oil in Canadian waters until Sept. 13.
Fourteen employment contracts, obtained by The Canadian Press, show hourly wages for non-licensed crew members range from as little as $2.13 to $8.80, depending upon the job and before overtime.
Seafarers union president Jim Given said such exploitation is common in international shipping, where companies will hire sailors from the Philippines, Indonesia or other poor countries for a tiny fraction of what Canadians would make.
"The Government of Canada is letting foreign ships replace thousands of qualified Canadian workers at a time when 25 per cent of our workforce is unemployed,'' said Given. "The law is very simple. They're giving work permits to foreign workers on ships in Canadian waters when the law says those jobs should go qualified Canadians first."
Canada Border Services Agency last year issued 142 exemptions to foreign ships so their crews could work legally in Canada, even though the union says shipping companies made no attempt to hire Canadian sailors. Another 59 C-10 exemptions have been granted so far this year.
It's scandalous and meant to improve the corporate bottom line of both oil companies and shippers, Given said in an interview Monday.
A request for comment was made to Immigration Minister Chris Alexander's office, but no one was immediately available.
Given said more than 800 of his members are currently looking for work and the temporary foreign worker exemptions are being abused.
"Those permits are intended for those who are going to open a company and employ people and there is some big economic benefit to Canada,'' said Given. "There is no economic benefit to Canada to this, other than allowing Suncor to put more money into their pocket.''
The Harper government clamped down on the temporary foreign worker program earlier this year. It set a deadline of April 1st for low-skilled workers to either become permanent residents or leave the country.
It also overhauled the program, requiring some employers to provide a labour market impact assessment and demonstrate no Canadians were available before hiring foreigners. There are loopholes that allow international companies to bypass the assessment, but whether they apply to shipping companies is unclear.
At the time, Alexander cast the measures as "putting Canadians first."
The labour movement has made defeating the Conservatives an objective in the federal election and in some key ridings has encouraged strategic voting.
Given denied that the impending court challenge is politically motivated.
"I don't care who is elected next. There needs to be a maritime policy and there needs to be a policy on temporary foreign workers when it comes to seafarers," he said.
Also on HuffPost