A Fijian ferry company has been accused of scamming and underpaying its seafarers, the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) claimed.
The company then sacked the workers when they spoke to the union, the ITF alleged.
Goundar Shipping was said to have tricked more than 20 Filipino seafarers into flying to Fiji to operate and maintain its fleet of passenger and cargo ferries with promises of decent wages and conditions.
When they arrived, the company informed them that they would be paid 60-70% less than what they were promised.
With many of the seafarers unable to afford return tickets, they agreed to stay on with the company with fresh promises of repatriation following an additional year of work.
Later the company reportedly said that flights and quarantine costs were too expensive, due to COVID, and refused to honour its obligations to get the seafarers home.
“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,” said Sarah Maguire, an Australian-based ITF inspector.
She has been working on the case for the last few weeks, and explained that Goundar Shipping had 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 alleged.
“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,” she added.
By the end of February, many of the Filipino seafarers were more than 18 months over their initial contracts and were 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, the ITF said.
“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,” Maguire stressed.
Maguire said that the ITF was calling on the Fijian Government to intervene – both to end Goundar’s ongoing seafarer scam, but also to force the company to pay for the flights home of the three seafarers left stranded by the company’s sacking.
“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,” Maguire said, adding that how the Fijian Government responds is also test for the country on human rights.
“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,” she claimed.
Fiji is also currently in consultation with the UN’s International Labour Organisation over how best to put into local law the provisions of the Maritime Labour Convention (MLC), which it signed up to in 2014.
This convention is described as the ‘seafarers’ bill of rights’.