25 Mar 2021

Agent of stranded seafarers in Fiji gets licence suspended

10:57 am on 25 March 2021

The Philippines government has suspended the licence of a manning agency who recruited a group of seafarers now stranded in Fiji amid claims of human trafficking against their employer.

About 20 Filipinos have accused one of the largest shipping companies in Fiji of abusive treatment including backpay owed to the seafarers.


.. Photo: Wikipedia

Fiji police are investigating allegations of worker rights violations against Goundar Shipping Limited.

The Philippines Overseas Employment Administration (POEA) last week suspended the licence of Able Maritime Agency.

The administration's Bernard Olalia said an investigation was launched into Able Maritime's operations.

Olalia said this included checks if the 'company had conducted significant efforts to help the stranded seafarers in Fiji'.

"We saw that the manning agency was lacking in its efforts to monitor our seafarers so we immediately imposed disciplinary action.

"This has led to the disciplinary suspension of the licence of the manning agency," he said.

A manning agency is the crew management company responsible for the manning of vessels under a crew management contract.

This includes the sourcing, recruitment, selection, deployment, scheduling, training/upgrading programs, and on-going management of seafarers engaged on vessels under crew management contracts.

The Able Maritime Agency has also been disallowed from hiring and recruiting seafarers, Olalia said.

He said the seafarers were deployed in February 2020 to work on Goundar's fleet and were allegedly abandoned.

He said they also had contracts for a maximum of 12 months.

"They failed to give an update, a significant report, or what we call a regular monitoring report, so we issued a documentary suspension against the agency," Olalia said.

He said the administration was working with government officials especially the department of Foreign Affairs to immediately repatriate the seafarers.

Union call to denounce Fiji ferry firm

Meanwhile, the union representing workers of a ferry company in Canada are urging their employer to sever ties with Goundar Shipping over allegations the Fijian employer had violated the human rights of its foreign seafarers.

BC Ferries' workers want the company to condemn and suspend any dealings with Goundar.

In a letter to the board, the BC Ferries and Marine Workers' Union urged the company to refuse to do business with Goundar Shipping.

The union said investigations by the International Transport Workers' Federation (ITF) had uncovered claims of "widespread abuse, underpayment, unsafe conditions, and even of human trafficking and slavery".

BC Workers Union president, Graeme Johnston, said they had taken up the cause of Goundar's workers because three of the Fiji shipping company's vessels - Queen of Prince Rupert, Queen of Chilliwack and the Queen of Nanaimo were all purchased from BC Ferries.

Johnston said Goundar Shipping's owner, George Goundar, was a former manager at BC Ferries.

"We share solidarity with other seafarers around the world and when we see BC Ferries' vessels being used in a way that is akin to human trafficking it's going to be something that causes a lot of hard feelings among our members and stir up a lot of passions," he told the Times Colonist newspaper.

The Queen of Chilliwack was one of three vessels Goundar Shipping bought from Canadian company BC Ferries.

The Queen of Chilliwack was one of three vessels Goundar Shipping bought from Canadian company BC Ferries. Photo: Supplied

Johnston said it was unacceptable for BC Ferries to have any dealings with Goundar and the union hoped BC would join it and call out the Fijian firm.

If we can all conspire to create better working conditions for folks who are being treated so poorly, then we have done the job we are out there to do, he said.

The ITF claimed it had found that Goundar Shipping 'tricked' the Filipino crew into flying to Fiji to operate and maintain its fleet of passenger and cargo ferries.

Australian-based ITF inspector Sarah Maguire said the Filipino workers were promised decent wages and conditions.

But she said once in Fiji, they were told they would earn 60-70 percent less than what they had agreed to before they left the Philippines.

Maguire said Goundar Shipping had kept the workers as "virtual slaves" as they could not afford to return to their homes.

She also claimed that Goundar had refused to pay the crew's passage, but had instead offered to keep them at work on its vessels.

ITF prepared to go to court: inspector

Maguire said some of the workers have basically been held hostage at sea.

What Goundar is doing is systemic abuse of seafarers, she said. "It's planned, methodical and it's not an accident or oversight."

She said the ITF investigations had prompted the Fijian authorities to look into claims made by the stranded seafarers.

"We're hoping that the Fiji police investigations will come to the right conclusion," Maguire said.

"If we don't get a reasonable outcome from the Fijian government, we are prepared to take it to the Fijian courts.

"Right now, many of Fiji's ferries are being operated by workers who don't want to be there.

"They haven't wanted to be there for more than a year, but they can't break free from the trap that Goundar Shipping has set for them with its underpayments and lies about flights home."

Maguire said having the union representing BC Ferries' workers stand in solidarity with their colleagues in Fiji had made a difference.

"It adds to the pressure on not only the Fijian government to act, but the Filipino government as well," she said.

Maguire urged Manila to take more notice and fight back against the exploitation of its people in industries across the world.

In a statement, BC Ferries said over the past 10 years Goundar Shipping had purchased three retired vessels from them through an open market process.

BC Ferries said in the same period, other companies had bought nine other retired vessels from the Canadian company.

"BC Ferries adheres to fair labour practices and the highest of safety standards within our own operations and believes in the value of these practices world-wide," the company said in the statement.

BC Ferries said it was unaware of but could not comment on labour practices at any other organisation.

Goundar Shipping has not responded to a request for comment.

Sarah Maguire.

Sarah Maguire. Photo: Supplied/ITF