Fiji police launch probe into ferry operator’s alleged abuse of Filipino crews

Photo: ITF

Fijian police officials have launched an investigation into reports of ongoing abusive treatment by a local shipping line against its own personnel.

The probe comes after a report was released by the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) that revealed Goundar Shipping had fired and abandoned three of its vessel crews after the latter began asking local union representatives about their rights.

The ITF said its own investigations revealed that staff at Goundar Shipping tried to confiscate a number of seafarers’ passports and other documents upon beginning work with the company. It is alleged that the company would not allow the seafarers to work until they did so.

The ITF added that the victims of abuse by Goundar were all Filipino nationals who were lured to Fiji to operate an ageing ferry fleet under false pretences, only to find 50 to 70 per cent lower wages, unsafe conditions, and no return ticket home as promised by the company and required under Fiji’s immigration laws.

ITF inspector Sarah Maquire said that, when the Filipino seafarers arrived, Goundar cut their pay further, undercounted their hours, and generally treated them with contempt.

Goundar also reportedly cut workers’ food rations, eventually to just bread and tea, and pushed seafarers to work an unsafe number of hours, many of them without commensurate pay, the ITF added.

Maguire said preliminary calculations by the ITF showed the seafarers had been paid as little as 75 cents per hour in recent months by Goundar for the hours they worked.

At least one seafarer, a cook, reportedly had a take home pay of just 40 cents per hour. He was paid for just seven hours per week, despite working 98-hour weeks.

The cook said that, like many of Goundar’s workforce, he worked 14 hours a day, seven days a week.

The ITF estimates Goundar Shipping owes the seafarers collectively more than US$193,000 in unpaid wages.

Early last week, the seafarers and their legal team met with officials from Fiji’s immigration department and human rights commission. For the first time, Fijian authorities confirmed that an active police investigation has been launched into Goundar’s conduct.

The seafarers had tipped off labour authorities in September 2020, and made official complaints with police and immigration officials in December 2020. When they received no response, another police complaint was made on January 5 in the presence of the seafarers’ legal team.

As recently as late February, Fijian government officials were denying that they had received complaints.

The ITF remarked that documents and testimonies indicate Goundar Shipping may have broken more Fijian laws than previously thought, as Goundar:

  • routinely docks seafarers’ pay for basic items like personal protective equipment
  • fails to provide basic hygiene necessities such as hand soap or laundry powder
  • refuses to give workers transparent payslips
  • does not provide functioning fire and protective equipment onboard – severely endangering crew and passengers
  • informed workers that they needed to sign a contract for another year before the owner will pay for their return flights

The seafarers said they also felt unsafe while on board the company’s vessels, which are generally old and poorly maintained, placing passengers and crew at great risk on every sailing.

Seven of the 20 Filipino seafarers Goundar brought to Fiji are still currently abandoned without income and housing in Suva. All of the seafarers, including those still working for the company, said that they want to go home after months of being over-contract.

Goundar told nine of the remaining seafarers it employs that it would finally arrange flights for them. However, the ITF said the shipping company is refusing to pay for quarantine and Covid PCR testing as part of the repatriation, meaning the impoverished seafarers will likely remain stranded in Fiji.

A PCR test is worth about FJ$300 (US$148).

Lawyer Adrienne Ali of InterAlia Consultancy, who is leading the seafarers’ legal case in Suva, commented that Goundar Shipping sought to reduce its labour costs and employee complaints by going to another jurisdiction and sourcing foreign workers, who are often cheaper, more compliant, and unrepresented by unions.

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