Advocates come together to help sailors stuck for months on tugboats in Quebec port
By Morgan Lowrie in Trois-Rivières
Groups that advocate for seafarers are expressing concern for 11 sailors who are spending a harsh Quebec winter aboard three tugboats that have been detained for months in the port of Trois-Rivières.
Paul Racette, who operates the Foyer des Marins seafarers’ club in the port, said the workers, who hail from Mexico, Cuba and Guyana, aren’t used to winter.
“For them, 17 degrees is cold, so imagine them having to work outdoors at the temperatures we’re having now,” he said in an interview.
Furthermore, they’re weathering the winter on the moored tugboats, which he says aren’t designed for long-term living.
“It’s very small, it’s narrow, there are no conveniences inside, so it’s problematic,” he said.
The boats, which are in the 30 to 40 metre range, were sold last year to a company that wants to bring them to the South American nation of Guyana. But they’ve been detained in the port, halfway between Quebec City and Montreal, since October due to what Transport Canada describes as “non-compliance with various international maritime conventions,” including labour regulations that ensure the crew’s well-being.
“Before lifting the detention and authorizing the vessels to depart, Transport Canada will verify that the outstanding items have been rectified,” wrote spokeswoman Sau Sau Liu.
Racette said that while there were about 25 crew members originally, their numbers have dwindled to 11 as some have left and fewer have come to replace them.
On a recent visit, two of the three tugboats could be seen moored along the river’s edge, dwarfed in size by the much larger ship behind them. Canadian and Guyanese flags whipped in the wind as heavy snow fell.
None of the sailors stepped out when a reporter stopped by, and Racette said none of the current crew wanted to speak with media out of concern they could face reprisals.
The vice president for the St. Lawrence and East Coast for the Seafarers International Union of Canada, who has been working with the crew, said he’s concerned about the sailors’ working and living conditions.
Vince Giannopoulos said some of these are matters of “base level legality,” including contracts. He said some of the seafarers were sent to the ships with only verbal agreements regarding pay, only to find upon arrival that the compensation in the written contract was far less than promised.
His visits to the ship, the most recent of which was in December, revealed “all sorts of problems,” ranging from a lack of safety and cold-weather equipment to inadequate food, he said.
“During a couple of my visits the crew was having Mr. Noodles three times a day,” he said. “That was their breakfast, lunch and supper.
“It’s hard to even find out where to begin with this story because there are just so many issues.”
Mark Wong, a seafarer from Guyana, spent six months aboard the vessels working as an engineer before flying home in late December.
While he found the living conditions aboard the tugboats to be generally good, the 59-year-old said it’s the first time he’s been stuck on a detained vessel for so long.
He said the situation began to drag on as crew members had to be switched out and inspections kept revealing more issues to be fixed.
He said the arrival of winter was “terrible,” and his strongest memory is the ice on the deck.
“I’m not accustomed to it,” he said.
Wong said he was one of those who arrived without a contract, and, while he’s received his wages, he says the company still owes him leave pay. Despite the issues, he said he would be willing to go back.
“Not in the winter though,” he added.
Racette said the seafarer’s club, which has a small budget and is mostly volunteer-run, has been doing what it can to support the crew. Members visit the vessels to bring treats, chat, and encourage the seafarers to visit their clubhouse, which has a pool table, snacks, comfortable chairs and Internet access.
Volunteers have come forward to help drive some of the crew to shopping centres or to attend a Spanish-language religious service, while community members have donated warm clothing, he said.
More recently, he’s been making an appeal for donations to take the crew on outings such as restaurant visits or bowling trips.
While it’s not clear how long it will take for the tugboats to get authorization to leave, Racette’s opinion is that they’ll remain in the port until at least April when the ice clears.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 5, 2023.
StatCan report casts clouds on claims of a widespread labour shortage in Canada
A new report is casting doubt on the idea that Canada is facing a widespread labour shortage, bolstering arguments by labour economists who say the country has more than enough workers. A sign for help wanted is pictured in a business window in Ottawa on Tuesday, July 12, 2022. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
By Nojoud Al Mallees in Ottawa
A new report is casting doubt on the idea that Canada is facing a widespread labour shortage and bolsters the arguments by some labour economists that high job vacancies aren’t due to a shortage of workers.
The Statistics Canada analysis finds there are no labour shortages for jobs that require high levels of education, suggesting other factors, such as a mismatch in skills and pay, might be to blame for a high number of empty positions.
In the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, labour shortages have grasped headlines from coast to coast as businesses have advertised more job openings than ever. Job vacancies skyrocketed to more than one million at one point last year.
The perceived countrywide labour shortage has put pressure on governments to help businesses find workers, including by increasing Canada’s immigration targets.
But the report published this week compares unemployment and job vacancies by education level and paints a more nuanced picture of the labour market.
“Things look really different depending on whether you look at vacancies that require a high level of education, versus those that require a high school diploma or less,” said René Morissette, the assistant director of social analysis and modelling division at the federal agency.
The report, which looked at labour data between 2016 and 2022, found for jobs requiring a bachelor’s degree or higher education, there were always fewer jobs available than people to fill them.
For example, there were 113,000 vacant positions requiring a bachelor’s degree or higher education in the fourth quarter of 2022, but 227,000 individuals who held such an education were unemployed during the same period.
But for positions that required a high school diploma or less, the shortage of workers only started in the third quarter of 2021.
Morissette said the findings don’t mean that there are no labour shortages in some markets, but shortages may not be as extensive as previously assumed.
“It’s certainly conceivable that there are local shortages in some in some positions,” Morissette said. “What we’re saying is that the shortages may not be as widespread as initially assumed in the early discussions about the high vacancy rates in Canada.”
For employers trying to fill vacancies that require a post-secondary education, the report says their hiring challenges cannot be attributed to a lack of workers available with those qualifications.
Instead, the difficulties may be the result of a mismatch in skills required for the job and those possessed by candidates. Another factor could be that employers aren’t offering wages that are on par with what job seekers expect.
The report also casts doubt on the hiring challenges facing firms trying to recruit workers with lower levels of education.
“The degree to which these job vacancies can be attributed to labour shortages in specific low-skilled occupations instead of relatively low-wage offers and fringe benefits or other factors remains an open question,” the report says.
Jim Stanford, an economist and the director of the Centre for Future Work, says the report from Statistics Canada busts “long-standing myths” about labour shortages in the country.
“If you were really short of labour, and you couldn’t find someone to do that minimum wage job at a McDonald’s restaurant, then why aren’t they either increasing the wage or trying to replace the work with machinery?” Stanford said.
“Neither are happening, which suggests to me that employers in general are quite happy with the current state of affairs, no matter how much they complain about labour being in short supply.”
So what explains the high number of job vacancies?
Morissette said for low-skilled industries, businesses may be choosing to keep wages low and accept higher vacancy rates.
“For employers that have negligible training costs, a human resource strategy that combines relatively low wages with high worker turnover and some vacancies might actually … maximize profits,” he said.
The federal government has kept an open ear to business groups raising alarm bells about labour shortages.
In the fall, Ottawa announced new immigration targets that would see the country welcome 500,000 immigrants annually by 2025. Immigration Minister Sean Fraser has touted the new plan as a solution to the country’s labour woes.
Canada has also experienced a surge in the number of temporary foreign workers brought into the country to help businesses fill vacant positions.
The apparent shortage of low-skilled workers could push policymakers to think that even more temporary workers are needed, but Stanford said that would be a “disastrous” conclusion to draw from the report.
Many economists have reservations about temporary foreign worker programs that they worry can suppress wages domestically, if used excessively.
“The goal of immigration policy should not be to solve the recruitment problems faced by low-wage employers, or any employers for that matter,” he said.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 27, 2023.
About half of Canada’s environment ministers skip meeting on biodiversity loss
More than half of the provinces’ ministers have skipped out on a meeting with the federal government and Indigenous leaders to discuss halting land and water loss in Canada. Minister of Environment and Climate Change Steven Guilbeault speaks during the Montreal Climate Summit in Montreal on Wednesday, May 10, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Christinne Muschi
More than half of the provinces’ ministers have skipped out on a meeting with the feds and Indigenous leaders to discuss halting land and water loss in Canada.
Environment ministers from Saskatchewan, British Columbia, Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia and the Northwest Territories attended the meeting.
The other provinces and territories sent their deputy ministers.
The Liberal government is leading a 2030 biodiversity strategy to protect 30 per cent of land and water by 2030, but it will be a difficult target to reach without the help of provinces and territories.
The federal ministry of environment and climate change says they have a critical role to play because they have significant authority over land use.
At the end of 2022 almost 14 per cent of Canada’s land and freshwater and almost 15 per cent of marine areas and coastline were under some kind of conservation protection.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 26, 2023.
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