Tuesday, March 16, 2021

Freight and Passenger Ferry Group Faces the Music on 'Human Trafficking' Accusations

Scandal of Misguided Crews Ends in a Police Investigation
Shipping News Feature

FIJI – The case we wrote about in an article last month in which passenger and cargo ferry group Goundar Shipping stood accused of serious offences against staff it had recruited overseas has taken a new twist today as police launched an investigation into the potential human trafficking of dozens of Filipino seafarers.

The accusation is that the company lured the men with offers of a monthly salary of US $1000 but actually paid far less when the crews arrived and had no means of returning home. Now the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) says that in addition the company owes more than AU$250,000 to seafarers in unpaid wages, a sum it disputes.

According to the ITF workers were expected to pay for their own personal protective equipment (PPE) on the ships, and seafarers claim their pay was docked to pay for basic items like toiletries, and subsequently further cut the workers’ pay by 50% when it claimed Covid reduced its earnings.

The union goes on to say staff were refused any money unless they handed over their passports to the company, yet when made aware of the ITF investigation it bought nine of the men airline tickets, which the ITF claims was to prevent them testifying. This tactic failed after the Fiji Immigration Department quickly organised interviews and designated the seafarers with ‘Victim Status’, prohibiting Goundar representatives from contacting them in future. Paul Tolich, chair of the ITF New Zealand National Coordinating Committee, said:

“Investigations by unions have uncovered allegations of widespread abuse, underpayment, unsafe conditions, and even of human trafficking and slavery, in New Zealand’s own backyard. Dozens of Filipino seafarers were convinced to come to our region and work on Fiji’s biggest ferry fleet on the promise of fair wages and conditions. But failure by the Fiji Government to enforce these seafarers’ employment contracts, and guarantee their basic workers’ and human rights, has meant that these seafarers have been trapped working against their will in Fiji for years.”

The ITF claims Fijian labour, immigration and law enforcement officials did not respond to seafarers’ complaints against Goundar Shipping for more than three months, only responding after media attention was brought to their case by the ITF in February. Mr Tolich said that New Zealand unions welcomed news that a Police investigation has finally been launched, but that fears of a potential whitewash remain once the seafarers leave the country back to the Philippines. He continued:

“I am writing on behalf of our affiliates to the New Zealand ministers of Foreign Affairs and Workplace Relations, urging them to raise the seafarers’ case immediately with their counterparts in Suva. Fiji needs to know that, as New Zealanders, we expect a thorough investigation of the abuse that these workers suffered and any offending employers fully prosecuted.

“We want a commitment from Fiji to make changes, including legislative change and proper enforcement, so this doesn’t happen again to other workers. The New Zealand Government should offer to help with that, if that’s what’s required. We can’t have migrant workers being exploited and trafficked in our region.

“We support calls by Fijian unions for greater recognition by the Fiji Government so they can better stand up for migrant and local workers. When there are problems of underpayments and abuse, stronger unions are the best way to support workers to speak up without fear. Joining and forming unions is a fundamental human right.”

Mr Tolich said that under current Fijian laws migrant workers do not have the same protections as Fijian citizens, making it difficult for them to speak out when abuse does occur. He said Goundar Shipping fired three of the seafarers in December when the company found out that they had spoken to local union representatives about their rights. The seafarers were dumped at a remote port and had to spend the night sleeping on a dock before making their journey back to Suva. Under the country’s current laws, the firing was likely legal.

Tolich noted that Fiji recently won election to the presidency of the United Nations Human Rights Council pledging to stand up for human rights, and he added it was time to show that leadership at home. Further complaints regarding the company’s behaviour are that the Philippines government funded the seafarers’ quarantine costs, and a charity paid for their Covid-19 PCR tests (both of which are Goundar’s responsibility).

Meanwhile seven seafarers remain abandoned in Suva, Fiji, without support networks, permanent housing or incomes, four of them quit after their passports were demanded and three were fired after speaking to union representatives. At the weekend CNN reported that the Philippines Department of Foreign Affairs shifted welfare support for seafarers from their Suva consul to the country’s Embassy in Wellington, New Zealand, which has a labour attaché.

In 2019 the Maritime Safety Authority of Fiji said it was detaining all vessels owned by Goundar Shipping due to the company failing to comply with the Maritime (Safe Ships Management) Regulation 2014.