Seafarers' union launches legal challenge

Says use of temporary foreign workers leaves domestic seamen out of work

Despite an overhaul over the past year, Canada’s temporary foreign worker program is again the target of flak — this time, from the union representing domestic sailors who are legally challenging the federal government.

The Seafarers’ International Union of Canada (SIU) filed an application against the federal government for judicial review in mid-September, saying the law allows a loophole for foreign vessels to hire temporary foreign workers — sometimes at wages as low as $2 per hour — over readily available Canadian seamen, 25 per cent of whom are underemployed, according to the union.

"Qualified Canadian maritime workers have lost more than 2,000 jobs," said SIU’s president Jim Given. "They have been replaced by temporary foreign workers earning just $2 an hour."

"The government of Canada is willfully ignoring the law and giving up on qualified, ready-to-work Canadian workers," he said.

"We cannot sit by and watch while foreign workers are being given work permits and are paid as little as $2 an hour to work on ships in Canadian waters."

In documents filed in Federal Court, the SIU alleges the Canada Border Services Agency granted temporary foreign work permits to crews operating in domestic waters over Canadian sailors.

In total, they have 42 applications and have also named Minister of Citizenship and Immigration Chris Alexander and Minister of Public Safety Canada Steven Blaney in the suit.

The union also alleges that, since 2013, 4,000 temporary work permits have been issued by the government for domestic shipping.

Though recent changes to the Temporary Foreign Worker Program also modified the Labour Market Impact Assessment — a requirement that employers show there are no qualified Canadian workers available to do the job — the border agency has not been following the rules, the union said.

C-10 exemption

Further complicating the matter is the C-10 exemption, which would allow foreign-flagged vessels to hire foreign crews if they can show a "significant benefit" to Canada which, according to the federal government, also covers trade agreements such as NAFTA.

There are already laws in place designed to make sure temporary work permits are not issued when qualified Canadians are available, according to the union’s lawyer, David Borins.

So any work permits issued to non-Canadian crews on the foreign ships named in the application were improperly granted, he said.

"The SIU hopes the court will decide that the temporary work permits issued to non-Canadian workers crewing these flag-of-convenience ships were improperly granted, either because there was no basis for an exemption to a Labour Market Impact Assessment or, if Labour Market Impact Assessments were conducted, that the Labour Market Impact Assessments were not properly conducted and, therefore, are invalid," Borins said.

As for the C-10 exemption, the provision is being abused by those who issue licences, he said.

"C-10 exemptions from Labour Market Impact Assessments were never intended to be used on a routine basis to expedite and grant work permits to temporary foreign workers," he said.

"It is particularly troubling that exemptions are being granted when many of the foreign crews working in Canada under Canadian work permits are paid a fraction of the minimum wage required by the Canada Labour Code."

Borins went on to say the union is in no way involved in the exemption process. In fact, the SIU has made it clear in the past it can provide crews for vessels the Canadian Transportation Agency has licensed to work in Canada.

"The clear availability of Canadian crew makes it particularly difficult to understand why C-10 exemptions would ever be justifiable," Borins said.

The Amalthea case

Three foreign-flagged oil tankers have been named in the SIU’s lawsuit — the Amalthea, the Sparto and the New England. For the former vessel, the SIU was able to provide documents showing certain temporary foreign workers were hired at a rate of $2 per hour, whereas the prevailing wage in Canada is around $21 per hour.

The Amalthea is a Greek tanker owned by Suncor Energy, which applied for a licence to transport 450,000 barrels of crude oil from Texas for discharge at different ports in North America, including Montreal and around the Atlantic provinces, according to the Canadian Transportation Agency.

Both Citizenship and Immigration Canada and Public Safety Canada declined opportunities for comment on the specific case, but a government spokesperson said work permit applications are looked at on a case-by-case basis and border agents are well-trained to make such determinations.

And Canadian Transportation Agency staff gave notice of the Amalthea’s application to "the Canadian marine industry," according to the federal government’s website, and because "no Canadian ships were offered," it was determined there were no suitable domestic ships available to perform the job.

When the SIU learned the Amalthea had been granted a licence, it contacted the vessel’s Canadian ship agent to offer up a suitable domestic crew, but its calls went unreturned.

"Instead, temporary work permits were issued to all crew on the Amalthea allowing them to work in Canada," Borins said.

While the temporary foreign worker program has been reformed since coming under fire early last year, the goal of the union and the legal challenge is proper application and compliance with existing immigration and labour laws, said Borin.

"The SIU hopes to see Canadian sailors given the first opportunity to work in their own country rather than allowing those jobs to go to foreign crews."

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