Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Freight and Passenger Ferry Company Accused of Serious Human Rights Abuses

Seafarers Tricked Into Service with No Way Out
Shipping News Feature

FIJI – Goundar Shipping, which runs a fleet of passenger and cargo ferries from its headquarters in Suva, stands accused by the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) of serious offences regarding the recruiting and employment of staff.

The union alleges that, having tricked more than 20 Filipino seafarers into flying to Fiji to operate and maintain its vessels, it reneged on the agreements upon their arrival and offered new terms at 60-70% less wages.

With many of the seafarers unable to afford return tickets, the ITF says they agreed to stay on with the company with fresh promises of repatriation following an additional year of work. The company then said that flights and quarantine costs were too expensive due to Covid, and refused to honour its obligations to get the weary seafarers home.

Sarah Maguire, an ITF inspector working in Australia has been working on the case for the last few weeks. She said that Goundar Shipping has orchestrated one of the worst ‘double-booking’ seafarers scams she had seen in the industry. The consequence of the underpayments was indenturing the affected crew to work for Goundar for months, even years, beyond their initial contracts, she said:

“Goundar Shipping has scammed these seafarers in to coming thousands of kilometres across the Pacific to help make George Goundar a small fortune. Not content with underpaying these workers by as much as 70% of what they promised them, Goundar Shipping has been keeping them as virtual slaves by refusing to send them home as agreed.

“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. These workers just want to see their families, they want to be free.”

By February 2021, many of the Filipino seafarers were now more than 18 months over their initial contracts desperate to get home. When three of the seafarers told the company that they wanted take leave to travel to speak to union representatives about their rights and options to get home, the company fired them.

Being sacked by the employer who brought them to Fiji meant the workers were instantly made homeless without any support networks. They spent their first night sleeping on a dock in a remote port town, before making their way back to Suva. The seafarers are still homeless and relying on the support of local trade unions and individuals. Maguire said how the Fijian government responds to this case is also a test for the country on human rights. Fiji is also currently in consultation with the UN’s International Labour Organization over how best to put into local law the provisions of the Maritime Labour Convention, which it signed up to in 2014. The convention is often described as the ‘seafarers’ bill of rights’. Maguire concluded:

“Goundar shipping sacked these workers because they dared to ask ‘how can this nightmare end?’. This company has now been exposed for tricking these workers and ripping off their wages for more than a year. Instead of owning up, paying back the wages, and getting the crew on the first flight home, Goundar has doubled down on being a nasty, law-breaking employer.

We want to see Goundar Shipping punished for scamming these seafarers, ripping off their wages, and effectively keeping them as slaves. We call on Fiji to intervene and make an example of George Goundar’s empire of exploitation. The Fijian government should suspend Goundar Shipping’s licence to operate until the company settles all its outstanding obligations to its workers, including its responsibilities to arrange and pay for all flights home. If the government doesn’t act, it will have a growing number of homeless seafarers to take care of on its streets.

“Being a trade unionist is a fundamental human right. All workers are supposed to have the freedom to join, form, and speak to, trade unions. No employer should be able to get away with bullying workers out of talking about their rights like Goundar has. We hope the Fijian government do the right thing and come down strongly on Goundar Shipping.”

George Goundar runs ten ferries and last July said his spending on new ships would reach $24 million for the year ahead. In September he was complaining to anyone who would listen that Covid 19 was causing him to lose 40% of his business and necessitating the lay-up of four vessels. He said at the time:

“The Maritime Safety Authority of Fiji (MSAF) is the main issue now as they want all local seafarers to be documented. I can’t get qualified seafarers offshore from the Philippines because of this Covid-19. It is just difficult and frustrating right now that I am 80 staff short to operate all my vessels. The ones I have now are rotated to meet the services and demand and it is difficult. The ones who are willing to work but have no documentation can’t afford tuition at the Maritime Academy. There is something wrong somewhere.”