By DON McINTOSH
Thanks to an international union federation—and an unusual intervention by the U.S. Coast Guard—12 Chinese crew members were able to leave a ship anchored at the Port of Longview and begin their journey home on May 14.
The seafarers had been working seven days a week for 14 months aboard the bulk carrier Tai Honesty. That greatly exceeds the 11-month maximum under a maritime labor convention of the United Nations’ International Labor Organization (ILO), and it also violates the 10-month maximum spelled out in a collective bargaining agreement the ship owner has with the International Transport Workers Federation (ITF).
The crew members’ plight came to light April 28 when one of them was able to call the U.S. Coast Guard as it left Los Angeles for Longview, and the Coast Guard tipped off the ITF. Columbia River ITF Inspector Ryan Brazeau and ITF West Coast Coordinator Jeff Engels investigated, and learned that 12 of the ship’s 19 crew members had been on board since March 13, 2021. Brazeau and Engels contacted the company, demanding that crew members be sent home once they got to Longview, but got nowhere. A company agent emailed them papers crew members had signed saying they were “voluntarily” extending their service.
When the Tai Honesty arrived in Longview May 6 to pick up a load of grain at the EGT Terminal, Brazeau and Engels boarded, and crew members told them that they’d been forced to sign the papers, but that in truth they wanted to go home.
Coast Guard Lieutenant Junior Grade Scott Wingfield then boarded the Tai Honesty for a regularly scheduled inspection and determined that crew fatigue presented a clearly hazardous condition with regard to the safety of the ship and U.S. navigable waterways, explained Michael Clark, petty officer 3rd class in the communications department of the U.S. Coast Guard’s Columbia River Command Center.
At that point, the U.S. Coast Guard issued orders that the ship not leave the river until its crew was relieved, saying the ship was unsafe due to crew exhaustion, under its authority to enforce the Port and Waterways Safety Act.
“Kudos to lieutenant Scott Wingfield,” Brazeau said. “He stepped up and said, ‘This ain’t gonna happen here.’ It sets the tone for this area moving forward, that we won’t take this.”
Engels, the West Coast ITF coordinator, said the ship’s owner already had plenty of time to repatriate the seafarers after the ship arrived in U.S. waters on February 16.
The Tai Honesty is owned by a Taiwanese shipping company Tai Shing Maritime, but it flies under the Panamanian flag. That arrangement is known as “flag of convenience.” Flag of Convenience is a global abuse in which ships are registered not in the countries where their owners are headquartered but in countries that have the weakest labor and environmental regulations and the lowest taxes. That’s chiefly Panama, Liberia, and the U.S. Marshall Islands, but the list extends to over 30 countries in total.
For Brazeau, winning freedom for the crew is the first big win since becoming a Portland-based ITF inspector April 1. Brazeau is a fourth generation ferry worker who spent 20 years working on ferries in the Puget Sound, much of that time serving as a union officer and business agent with Inlandboatmen’s Union of the Pacific.
“I can’t imagine being on a ship over 14 months,” Brazeau told the Labor Press. “These seafarers have young children, wives, families, grandkids. They lose over a year being able to be a part of their families’ lives. They do this because these are decent wage jobs where they come from.”
As crew members prepared to leave, Brazeau boarded the ship again and spoke with them.
“They were very thankful, really excited to get off the ship,” Brazeau said.
The 12 crew members flew out of Seattle-Tacoma International Airport May 14. Because much of China is in a pandemic lockdown they are quarantining for two weeks in Tanzania before returning home.
The experience of the Tai Honesty crew is the tail end of a much larger global “crew change crisis” that began after the pandemic hit in March 2020. At its height, an estimated 400,000 seafarers, about 25% of the total, were stuck aboard their ships more than 11 months, unable to return home. As of May 2022, only an estimated 0.3% of seafarers are currently exceeding the 11 month maximum, according to the Global Maritime Forum.