Crewmembers on foreign flagged vessels arriving at West Coast ports have frequently sought help from ILWU members and International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) inspectors.
“Sometimes we discover that crew members haven’t been paid correctly, or other times they report abusive working conditions, but sometimes it comes down to respecting their right to shore leave after working weeks or months at sea,” said ITF Coordinator Jeff Engels in Seattle.
This history of helping seafarers explains how a brief, spontaneous solidarity action by ILWU members at the Port of Seattle on the evening of September 26, helped crewmembers aboard the Hanjin vessel Marine who were denied shore leave by officials at U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP).
“The solidarity action on September 26 was a spontaneous response by ILWU members who saw the frustration of those crew members who were locked aboard their ship for several weeks,” said Local 19 President Rich Austin, Jr.
ILWU members responded quickly to the sight of crewmembers aboard the Marine who dangled a homemade banner emblazoned with the words, “We deserve shore leave” and “Thank you ILWU.” Dozens of ILWU members who were working on the Seattle dock briefly cheered for the crew and blew horns on vehicles that were operating alongside the container vessel around 6pm.
Support from ITF officials
The solidarity action won praise from leaders of the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF), who said the refusal to grant shore leave to seafarers on Hanjin ships calling at U.S. ports amounted to a denial of human rights.
ITF First Vice Chair and ILWU Vice President (Mainland) Ray Familathe said, “Preventing these seafarers from going ashore denies them a basic right, especially after they’ve been on a ship for weeks or months.” Familathe said the ILWU urged the U.S. Customs and Border Protection to review decisions made by some regional officials who enacted the lockdown against seafarers.
Familathe, who previously served as an Inspector/Coordinator for the ITF, added, “members of Congress asked CBP for an explanation and change of policy,”
Customs officials said the shore leave was denied because of fears that Hanjin’s recent bankruptcy might encourage some seafarers to jump ship.
Those fears haven’t been realized and the ILWU solidarity action and follow-up work appears to have encouraged CBP officials to reconsider their blanket prohibition against shore leave – confirmed when crewmembers on the next Hanjin vessel that docked in Seattle on October 14 were allowed shore leave.
ITF West Coast Coordinator Jeff Engels and ITF Inspector Stefan Mueller closely monitored working conditions aboard Hanjin vessels after the company declared bankruptcy on August 31. ITF officials also worked closely with the Federation of Korean Seafarers’ Unions and Korean Shipowners’ Association, who formed a joint taskforce to ensure that food, water and other provisions were put aboard, along with special insurance coverage to see that wages and pension benefits would be guaranteed for seafarers.
Weeks without shore leave
“We want to ensure that crewmembers are being paid fairly and served good food, which has been the case on every Hanjin vessel we’ve inspected so far,” Engels said. He was, however, concerned about conditions aboard the Hanjin Marine in September, because that vessel had been waiting offshore for several weeks before it docked in Seattle. To make matters worse, crewmembers aboard the Marine and other Hanjin vessels had been previously stranded offshore in Southern California and denied shore leave there.
Change for the better
“When Customs officials changed course by allowing crewmembers aboard the Hanjin Vessel Seattle to go ashore on October 14, it signaled that the agency was open to a more flexible and compassionate approach,” said Engels, who believes that ILWU solidarity and support from lawmakers in Washington played an important role in encouraging the change in shore leave. But he wanted to make sure that Hanjin crewmembers would get shore leave at other ports, so after the vessel Seattle departed the Puget Sound and traveled south to the Port of Long Beach in late October, Inspector Stefan Mueller was ready and waiting to help.
“When I came up the gangway to do my inspection, five crewmembers were already heading down with their shore leave,” he said. Mueller completed a thorough inspection and interviewed the Captain and crew, which allowed him to verify that all hands were paid up and fresh provisions had recently been put aboard.
Both Engels and Mueller agree that it’s too early to know if the CBP policy on shore leave for Hanjin crewmembers will continue, so both plan to monitor the issue.
Tradition of solidarity
The ILWU was founded on a tradition of solidarity for all workers, especially those in the maritime industry.
Sailors had already organized unions aboard vessels long before dockworkers succeeded in doing so. In 1934, longshore workers were day-laborers without rights and subject to terrible abuse.
The West Coast Waterfront Strike in the summer of 1934 sought to improve conditions for all maritime workers, including seafarers as well and longshore workers.
“The ILWU’s history is based on solidarity and when we say an injury to one is an injury to all, we mean it,” said ILWU International President Bob McEllrath who added, “all of us have a responsibility to keep that tradition alive.”