Seven international workers who have been stuck on board a container ship for more than a year will be repatriated Saturday, according to an inspector with the International Transport Workers' Federation.
The crew members are on the Tropic Hope, which docked in Halifax harbour Sunday night.
Karl Risser, the federation's inspector for Atlantic Canada, said he met with officials from the Canada Border Services Agency and Transport Canada that evening and came to a resolution.
"Canada has now worked out an agreement with the ship owner that they'll be repatriated early on their next visit to Palm Beach [Florida]," he said.
"It was really a good moment."
The ship's next visit to Palm Beach is scheduled for Oct. 10. It was slated to leave Halifax on Monday night.
Another seven people will go home during a visit to Palm Beach on Oct. 23, but Risser said the first group is "the most critical" because they've been on the ship for so long.
The Tropic Hope has been working a route to Florida and the Caribbean from Halifax for more than a year without its crew going home due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
"These guys have been on board for a long period of time — 12, 13, 14 months," said Risser. "We watched them be very happy to celebrate with their families as they got back in touch with them through their phones to say they're coming home."
Hundreds of thousands of seafarers, many of whom are from China, India and the Philippines, have been stranded on cargo ships around the world since the start of the pandemic.
Risser's group had asked for Canadian officials to detain the Tropic Hope in Halifax until the issue was settled.
On Sept. 20, he boarded the Tropic Hope and spoke with the captain and some of the crew. He said he learned six crew members had been on board since August and September of last year, well past their original nine-month contracts.
The inspection followed a complaint from an international seafarer's wife who was worried about her husband's mental and physical well-being.
Two crew changes planned this month
Transport Canada has said it's aware of the concerns with the Tropic Hope crew and that on Sept. 20 an inspector found "a deficiency under the Maritime Labour Convention (MLC) and instructed the master of the vessel to rectify the deficiency."
In response to a media request from CBC on Monday, the U.S.-based Tropical Shipping, which owns the Tropic Hope, provided a copy of an email it sent to Transport Canada on Friday.
The email said 40 per cent of Tropical Shipping's entire fleet has already been repatriated. It also said it has been taking actions regarding the complaint and is working to get the crew changes done successfully.
"The issues of world travel restrictions, having available crew that are able to travel within their own country due to local travel restrictions, required COVID testing before flights, and lack of available commercial flights do cause delays," the email said.
The company said seven crew members have flights booked for a crew change on Oct. 10. A crew change on Oct. 23 is being planned for another seven people.
The email also said "crew employment contracts have been revised, agreed to and executed by the crew members."
Seafarers scared to speak up on issue
Risser said he was glad to see Canada stand up for seafarers at Sunday's meeting because "they're being denied basic human rights and worker rights, and it's simply because they can't stand up for themselves."
"They have a legitimate fear of being blacklisted and never working again. So they need us to stand up for them and that's what we did last night," he said.
Risser said Canada has recognized the importance of seafarers who keep the country's supply chain going by creating corridors for them to get home.
"We have to make sure that the rest of the countries around the world do that so that seafarers who are keeping us going in this time of COVID get home safe, and we get more seafarers on board and fresh crews on board these vessels," said Risser. "And the only way to do that is through strong enforcement."
He said the federation will continue to monitor the Tropic Hope to ensure the company follows through.
Risser said the scope of the issue of stranded seafarers is huge, and the federation is doing everything it can to help them.
"All we can do is take it one ship at a time, and that's what we're going to do."
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