When the Liberian-flagged vessel “Sider Pink” docked in Sacramento on October 9th to take on a load of rice for Libya, it seemed like a routine call. But controversy soon surrounded the ship, triggering action by Local 18 longshore workers and involving inspectors from the International Transport workers Federation (ITF) who worked together to save the ship’s crew from abuse.
On October 13th, U.S. Marshalls boarded the Sider Pink – without notifying Local 18 – to announce that the ship was being seized because of a court order involving a financial dispute. The ship’s owner, Nikolas Papalios of Greece, had apparently run up a million tab with creditors who took action in U.S. courts to prevent the vessel from leaving.
Like many owners, Papalios registered his ship in the West African country of Liberia to avoid labor, safety, environmental and tax laws. Besides operating under a “flag of convenience,” the vessel’s ownership was concealed by a maze of different companies connected to Papalios.
Local 18 members learned that crewmembers were desperately hungry. Further contact confirmed that the ship lacked sufficient food provisions. The predominantly Chinese-speaking crew said they hadn’t been paid or received proper meals for many months. At one point, crewmembers said they had resorted to eating seaweed in order to avoid starvation.
After hearing of the crew’s plight, Local 18 members hastily organized a collection that raised 0 to purchase groceries that they delivered to the hungry crew.
“All of us scrambled to help these guys after we realized what they’d been through,” said Local 18 President Derek Peterson.
To provide additional help, Local 18 Vice President Tim Campbell, Jr. contacted ITF West Coast Coordinator Jeff Engels who gathered details, made plans to fly-down the next morning from Seattle, and spent all night on the phone with ILWU International Vice President Ray Familathe, the ship’s owners, ITF headquarters in London, U.S. Coast Guard officials, and lawyers representing the owner and creditors.
When Engels arrived at the dock in Sacramento, he found that the U.S. Coast Guard had already written-up the company for failing to provide sufficient provisions. The Guard was also willing to assist and observe Engels’ during the ITF inspection process. The ship’s captain spoke very little English, but communication with the crew was aided by a Chinese interpreter who was secured by an ITF Inspector in Houston. The interpreter allowed crewmembers explain their plight.
It turned out that the “Sider Pink” was covered by an ITF Collective Bargaining Agreement, but important terms of the contract weren’t being honored. Because the contract allowed ITF Inspectors to review important documents on the ship, it should be easy to verify if the crew was being properly paid and fed. But because the “Sider Pink” and most other ships operate under a “flag of convenience,” they often keep two sets of books; one for the inspectors and another for the owners. After hours reviewing documents, reading personnel contracts, and interviewing the crew in private, Engels concluded that the ship owner had violated the contract by failing to pay the crew properly. A demand was made for the crew to be immediately paid for all their current and back wages, which finally happened. Proper payment was confirmed by talking with crewmembers and reviewing bank records that proved the back-wages owed had been paid.
The combination of solidarity from Local 18 members, support from the ITF and enforcement action by the U.S. Coast Guard resulted in ,000 worth of food stores being delivered to the Sider Pink while the ITF inspection took place. The ship owner agreed to pay for the food along with back pay that ran through October.
A new treaty called the Maritime Labor Convention (MLC) would help crews facing similar problems, and the framework is already in place, with representatives from the foreign-flagged nations who agree to meet with ship-owners and ITF inspectors when crews are abused. The MLC has already been approved by 30 countries – including Liberia – but not in the U.S. because Republicans have blocked it and other legislation that protects workers. Until stronger laws in place, it will be up to ILWU members and ITF inspectors to hold employers – including foreign-flagged ship owners – more accountable.
“It’s impossible to know for sure if the vessel’s owner will continue to honor the contract or try to cheat the crew again after they leave the West Coast,” said Engels, “but they’re bound to be more careful because ITF inspectors are stationed at ports around the world and we can track the Sider Pink as she travels the globe.” He credited ILWU Local 18 members for their quick action and “front-line solidarity” that aims to help all waterfront workers.