Hit by a seafarer shortage, Canada opens way for more foreign nationals to work on its ships

Written by Nick Blenkey
Minister announces move to address Canadian seafarer shortage

Canadian Minister of Transport Omar Alghabra: “Through arrangements like this one, we are strengthening our workforce today and into the future with good-paying jobs for certified seafarers.”

Faced with a shortage of Canadian seafarers, on June 25 Canada signed agreements with Georgia, the Philippines, and the United Kingdom to allow their certified seafarers to work onboard Canadian vessels. This expands the number of countries whose seafarers can be so treated under Canada’s Reciprocal Arrangement, which previously had included only Australia, France, Norway, and Ukraine.

The expansion of the program was announced by Minister of Transport Omar Alghabra

According to Transport Canada, the Reciprocal Arrangement Program, launched in 2019, allows highly qualified workers to quickly gain employment in the Canadian marine sector. This means that once a foreign seafarer meets the requirements for work, Canadian companies can sponsor them to fill critical gaps in their workforce.

Seafarers with a valid International Convention on Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping for Seafarers certificate issued by the applicable countries can now apply for a Canadian endorsement.

A foreign seafarer must meet the requirements imposed by Immigration, Refugee and Citizenship Canada and Employment and Social Development Canada to work in Canada, including obtaining a valid work permit.

“Canadians from coast-to-coast-to-coast rely on the dedication of seafarers to get goods and ships where they need to go,” said Minister of Transport Alghabra. “On behalf of our Government, I want to thank all seafarers for their commitment. Through arrangements like this one, we are strengthening our workforce today and into the future with good-paying jobs for certified seafarers.”

The move is unlikely to sit well with Canadian mariners.

As recently as May, the Canadian Merchant Service Guild updated its members on the Canadian seafarer shortage, noting that, “despite the number of graduates coming out of Canadian marine schools, the number of seafarers retiring each year from the Canadian marine industry exceeds the number of new entrants. As a result, our industry is facing a shortage of personnel; particularly those holding high levels of certificates of competency, such as the qualifications of Master Mariner, Master Near Coastal, as well as First-class and Second-class Engineers. The shortage is now increasing and spreading to other certificates of competency. A recent federal government study indicates that over half of the remaining Canadian maritime workforce will retire over the next few years. This includes a further 52% of current engineering officers and 47% of deck officers.”

The update spells out the implications of this trend and discusses the options for addressing it.

Here’s what it says on the use of foreign seafarers:

“For a number of years the Guild has called for a program to assess the qualifications of new Canadians (permanent residents or citizens) who previously worked as seafarers in other countries, but after arriving in Canada have only been employed in occupations outside of our marine industry. This initiative has showed signs of success. Hundreds of new Canadians have applied to Transport Canada to have their foreign seafaring qualifications assessed, and have completed any gaps in their required training, and are now working alongside other Guild members. These are Canadians holding Canadian Certificates of Competency.

“The federal government has also signed agreements with a number of other nations to recognize certain foreign certificates of competency on board Canadian-flag vessels when qualified Canadians are not available. A number of Guild members are extremely disappointed with this development and are not pleased to hear that unions are not consulted regarding these agreements signed with foreign nations. The seafaring community across the country, including unions, are informed of arrangements made with foreign countries by way of Ship Safety Bulletins; after the fact.

“The position established by the National Board of the Guild regarding the recognition of foreign credentials aboard Canadian-flag vessels is that this is a temporary measure, and while it is far from ideal, it will enable Canadian-flag vessels to continue operating until a sufficient number of qualified Canadians become available.

“The Guild will be carefully monitoring this program to ensure that these foreign seafarers are only approved for employment on Canadian vessels if:

A) they meet the legal requirements to work in Canada; and

B) there are no qualified Canadians available to fill the position. That means all the qualified Canadians need to be already working, and the foreign seafarers will go to the bottom of the seniority list.

“In the event that a Canadian seafarer is not available for a vacant position on board a Canadian vessel, then instead of the vessel remaining tied up due to lack of crew, or instead of a foreign ship being granted a license to undertake the work, then a foreign officer may be authorized by Transport Canada to work on the Canadian ship if they demonstrate acceptable language proficiency, acceptable knowledge of local regulations such as the Canadian Modifications to the International Collision Regulations, and if they obtain a visa and a work permit and if Transport Canada issues to them an endorsement recognizing their foreign certificate of competency. Once again, unions are not consulted regarding the Canadian government signing such arrangements with foreign nations, or even prior to signing free-trade agreements, and we are informed afterwards. The Guild will recommend that eligible candidates from among these seafarers should apply to become Canadians (permanent residents or citizens), as most of our ancestors did at one time. That way they can become eligible to apply for a Canadian Certificate of Competency, and contribute in a meaningful way to Canadian society, with a vested interest in filling a valuable role in our marine industry.”

On the Reciprocal Arrangement, (and writing before this week’s expansion of it), the update says:

“The Guild will continue to carefully monitor the impact on our workforce of the use of foreign nationals temporarily occupying positions on Canadian vessels. Many Guild members have devoted their lives to working in the Canadian seafaring industry. Without any recognition or appreciation, Guild members have made significant sacrifices to keep marine commerce operating without interruption throughout pandemics and other serious challenges. Guild members work to ensure safety on the waterways and have a strong vested interest in the environmental protection of Canada’s fragile marine ecosystems. The Guild will continue to engage with members and employers and regulators across the country to ensure that these jobs aboard Canadian vessels remain well-paid Canadian jobs, that go to Canadians first.”

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