By Lisa Fattori
A common concern among union tugboat companies is the lack of a level playing field, when competing with some non-union operators, whose non-compliance with industry standards puts law-abiding businesses at a disadvantage. While not every small, independent bends the rules, some, disparagingly referred to as “gypos”, are rogue operators who also pose a safety hazard when they don’t follow Transport Canada rules in enforcing regulations. While punitive consequences exist for infractions, the difficulty lies in enforcing regulations in a timely and consistent manner, and in developing a protocol that tackles what has become a systemic problem.
“It’s very concerning, when you have companies running boats that are under-crewed and that don’t comply with regulations that are there for the public’s safety,” says a spokesperson for the Canadian Merchant Service Guild. “The quality of maintenance on these boats isn’t going to be up to par when compared with union vessels, but it’s the manning requirement that’s the bigger issue. This has been going on now for a number of years and it doesn’t appear to be getting any better.”
For a job that requires a tugboat with four crew members, including the master, mate and two deckhands, bids by union companies will take into account the cost of personnel. Rogue operators who run a tugboat with only three crew members are able to submit a lower bid, all the while not following regulations. These non-union companies are saving themselves approximately $50,000 per year by operating with only one deckhand, so they can afford to undercut union players. Given that a union operator is paying union wages, plus benefits, the cost of including that fourth deckhand makes his expense much more than $50,000 per year. Having the required number of personnel on board, however, is a necessary cost of doing business.
Losing a job to a non-union company is made all the more frustrating when customers go with the low-bidding operator who isn’t accredited with industry-specific safety training and certification. Some logging companies, for example, encourage tugboat personnel to complete training programs in the safe transportation of forestry products, but then will award a job to a non-union tugboat operation that doesn’t have the recommended credentials.
“Many companies go above and beyond, undergoing audits, establishing in-house safety committees, and spending the time and money to be properly accredited,” says Terry Engler, president of Local 400, International Longshore and Warehouse Union Canada. “It’s very frustrating for them to see non-union companies bidding low and getting jobs, when they don’t have the same safety standards and the proper crew levels.”
With the closing of several lumber mills along B.C.’s rivers, the tugboat market contracted, thus making competition much more fierce. While several companies have moved away from hauling wood products to towing barges containing other materials, such as aggregates, there is still demand for log towing services and transporting fuel to logging and mining camps. It is quite easy for a small company to get involved with the log towing business and, if vessels fall under15 GT, they are not inspected by Transport Canada. There are some reports that, to fall under the radar, rogue companies will soup-up their small tugs to move a higher tonnage, which impacts the vessels’ stability and, therefore, poses a safety risk.
Enforcement on the water does not fall under the sole jurisdiction of the Coast Guard or the RCMP, and Transport Canada’s inspections at shore may be too late to witness an undermanned vessel. On top of that, guidelines leave plenty of room for interpretation. Transport Canada is cognizant, however, of the concerns of tugboat crew members and takes action against any tugboat operator found not complying with the Canada Shipping Act, 2001, including the insufficient manning of tugboats. In November, for example, Transport Canada joined forces with the RCMP to monitor compliance by all commercial vessels (including tugboats) on the North Coast of Vancouver Island, from Campbell River to Bella Bella, B.C.
“This initiative has resulted in another tugboat found not complying with the safe manning regulatory requirements,” says Jillian Glover, spokesperson for Transport Canada, Pacific Region. “The operator has received a notice of deficiency and we will follow up with further enforcement. The Transport Canada / RCMP initiative will be on the water again this week.”
Overall, B.C.’s tugboat industry has a good safety record, but there have been some high profile accidents that incite public scrutiny and calls for tighter regulations. The 2007 sinking of a barge at Robson Bight, for example, put a spotlight on the industry, particularly because of the resulting fuel spill in the location of a whale sanctuary. The barge, carrying logging equipment and vehicles (including a fuel truck) was deemed unseaworthy, and the owner of the barge was found guilty on six pollution charges.
“When a small company doesn’t follow safety regulations and gets into trouble, it besmirches the entire industry,” Engler says. “We are guardians of the environment. If we want to grow the industry in B.C., we have to have all of the safety procedures in place for all vessels.”