Seafarers union ready to pull crews in push for COVID vaccine access

A union representing thousands of seafarers on Canada’s Great Lakes freighters is threatening to take workers off the job if crews aren’t prioritized for COVID-19 vaccines.

The Seafarers’ International Union of Canada is demanding an immediate federal action plan to vaccinate marine workers, warning of dire consequences if the industry has to shutter should the virus take hold on the waters.

“We are considering taking our crews off for their safety,” said union president James Given. “My No. 1 job right now is the safety of our membership.”

The union’s call to immediately vaccinate workers comes after a recent outbreak of COVID-19 on the Atlantic Huron. The Canada Steamship Lines-owned vessel, which departed from Sarnia on April 2, saw 18 of its 25 crew members infected with the virus by mid-month.

Three workers were hospitalized, Given said. The entire crew is now isolating at a hotel in Thunder Bay.

“The situation is getting worse, not better,” Given said. “We had a big outbreak on one of our ships recently. With the variants, they run rampant.”

All crew members produced negative COVID tests on April 1 prior to the vessel departing.

Brigitte Hebert, a spokesperson for Canada Steamship Lines, said the company is not aware of any breach of on-board or pre-board COVID-19 protocols and is working with health officials to determine the cause of transmission.

“The Atlantic Huron situation underscores the reality that despite testing and rigorous safety and sanitary protocols . . . a COVID-19 outbreak can happen in the closed environment of a ship,” she said in an email. “CSL unites its voice to that of the Seafarers International Union and other organizations in asking the federal and provincial governments . . . to make vaccination available to Canadian seafarers as soon as possible.”

Tight quarters aboard ships, where crew members work and live along a 3,700-kilometre marine highway linking the Atlantic Ocean to North America’s industrial heartland, makes physical distancing nearly impossible.

Two Canadian seafarers have died of COVID-19 since the pandemic began.

Given said his union, which represents about 15,000 seafarers, and other marine labour organizations have been pushing provincial governments since early December to develop a plan to vaccinate workers. They wanted workers to get the jab before their shipping season began mid-March.

The union is now turning to the federal government to take control, and has been granted a meeting with the Public Health Agency of Canada’s director general of vaccine rollout to discuss their concerns, Given said.

“We’re asking the feds to step in. We’re federally regulated employees,” he said. “They need to step up to the plate and get us vaccinated.”

Cole Davidson, a spokesperson for federal Health Minister Patty Hajdu, said provinces and territories determine vaccine rollouts within their jurisdictions and there is no federal stockpile of vaccines available.

“The Seafarers’ Union is a group of hardworking, dedicated professionals who are doing essential work,” Davidson said in an email. “This has been a stressful time for us all, but especially for those that are required to travel for work.”

In Ontario, front-line essential workers who cannot work from home are eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine in Phase 2 of the province’s rollout, which is underway.

Seafarers would likely fall into the second category of essential workers, along with transportation, warehousing and distribution workers, which includes marine and rail cargo workers.

It’s unclear when in the timeline this group would become eligible, but Phase 2 is set to wrap by the end of June, contingent on vaccine supply.

Ontario’s Ministry of Health did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

As the third wave of COVID-19 ravages the country, Given said the marine industry is in a precarious position. If even 10 to 20 per cent of freight crew members became infected or forced to isolate, there wouldn’t be enough other skilled seafarers to keep the vessels running, he said.

“We don’t have the people to replace them,” Given said. “The ships will be tied up anyway and the economy will take a hit.”

The shipping industry generates about $30 billion for the Canadian economy annually and contributes directly and indirectly to more than 250,000 jobs, with the bulk of goods and raw materials in Canada travelling through the waterways at one point or another.

Although crew members 40 and older could be eligible to get the vaccine at some pharmacies in Ontario and a handful of other provinces, Given said the logistics are a challenge, adding ships are staffed by people from across the country.

Crews are often aboard for three months at a time and don’t stop at a single port or city for more than a day, making it difficult to schedule an appointment. As well, shore leave has been halted amid the virus crisis.

Given is suggesting pop-up clinics at major Great Lakes ports to quickly vaccinate freight crews.

“We’re done listening to the excuses, we’re past that stage,” he said. “If a plan is not developed immediately, the union will be forced to take dramatic steps to ensure the health and safety of our members.”