Mission to Seafarers confronts human cost of shipping

Representatives from Missions to Seafarers stations across Canada gather at their annual conference in Toronto November 15-17. Photo: Tali Folkins
Representatives from Missions to Seafarers stations across Canada gather at their annual conference in Toronto November 15-17. Photo: Tali Folkins
Published November 28, 2016

Serving with the Mission to Seafarers, says the Rev. Eric Phinney, can be an eye-opening experience in many respects-down to the way you see items on a store shelf.

“When you become a chaplain, you suddenly get exposed to this whole new world,” he says. “You begin to see and understand how stuff moves around the planet, and at what cost.”

Often, he says, people don’t realize that there’s a hidden cost behind the low prices of many imports-the toll taken on those who work in the shipping industry. But it’s something he says he sees frequently in his work as chaplain at the Mission to Seafarers station in Saint John, N.B.

“Why could you buy that pair of pants…for $12.95 or whatever? Well, there’s a cost to that…We’re relying in some cases on slave-like conditions.”

Phinney, along with a dozen of his counterparts from the Mission to Seafarers stations across Canada, was in Toronto November 15-17 for the organization’s annual conference. Many spoke of the challenges faced by the seafarers they minister to-and of the difficulty they themselves experience in trying to help so many people on limited time and finances.

To minimize their costs, freight ship companies typically hire crew members from the poorest countries, Phinney says-people who will work in extremely difficult conditions out of economic necessity. Their jobs typically require them to be away from home from seven to 12 months of the year at a time, working long hours in sometimes dangerous conditions. Food may be scarce on the ships, and their employers may be behind in paying them. Or their employers may bar them from returning home for family funerals or other important events.

Since 2006, seafarers have been guaranteed certain rights-to decent work conditions, accommodations, food and medical care, for example-under a set of international regulations, the Maritime Labour Convention. In practice, however, crew members are often afraid to exercise these rights for fear they’ll be fired or blacklisted, Phinney says.

“I remember going on one ship and asking, ‘How are things going?’ and they said, ‘Well, all the paperwork says it’s going well, but nothing really happens that way,'” Phinney says. “They were trying to say things are really bad on the ship.”

Typical Mission to Seafarers ministry consists of chaplains visiting ships in port and speaking with crew members to offer them prayer, material support and advocacy when needed. It’s also a goal of the organization, Phinney says, to offer seafarers a place of real welcome at their stations when they come ashore.

“They want somebody who’s going to make them a cup of tea,” he says. “We’re trying to give them a home away from home, and a bit of a respite.”

Sometimes the company that owns a ship may go bankrupt and suddenly leave the crew stranded in a foreign country-without food and other necessities, or pay.

Earlier this fall, the Rev. Maggie Whittingham-Lamont, chaplain at the Halifax station, visited one such vessel in Cape Breton, to find unpaid and hungry crewmembers huddling around tiny space heaters. She and colleagues supplied them with food for the night and warm clothes.

“We sort of panic when we’re faced with something like that, because it’s not really budgeted for,” she says. It usually means she has to scramble for funds from donors. In 2012, she and her colleagues were able to amass enough airline travel points to send eight crew members from an abandoned tugboat home to Honduras and Guatemala.

Probably the biggest challenge faced by seafarers, Whittingham-Lamont says, is isolation. Serving on a ship thousands of kilometres from home for a good part of the year can be difficult enough, but sometimes, on top of this, crew members face linguistic problems as well. A single ship’s crew today may consist of people from several different nationalities; sometimes, there may be no one else on the ship who speaks the crew member’s language.

Much of her work, she says, consists in a ministry of presence, trying to be there for seafarers and support them emotionally.

But the heavy demands of having to minister to so many people, she says, can lead to the chaplains themselves feeling overstretched.

“We never have enough time to visit all the ships we want to visit and help everybody we want to help,” she says. “It’s a pretty hectic job.”

Sometimes the chaplains’ work has them witnessing not only the hardships but the joys of sailors’ lives also. The Rev. Judith Alltree, executive director and chaplain for Oshawa and Toronto mission stations, says one of the most unforgettable experiences she’s had as a chaplain occurred this summer when the Hamilton station allowed one young seafarer from the Philippines to see the birth of his first child. The station had granted him its Wi-Fi password, and when his wife went into labour, he sat outside the closed building all night helping coach her, using an online video messaging service.

“He could Skype into the delivery room with her and witness his daughter’s birth 12,000 km from where he was, 12 time zones away,” Alltree says. “And after the baby was born, he went back to the ship and announced the news. The captain shut all the work down, and they had a party.

“So you have those phenomenal stories as well as the difficult stories.”

The Mission to Seafarers, now in its 160th year, is a network of Anglican mission stations in about 200 ports around the world, organized in eight regions. Its Canadian region, which has stations in St. John’s, Halifax, Saint John, Toronto, Oshawa, Hamilton, Windsor, Sarnia, Thunder Bay and Vancouver, is currently in the process of establishing itself as an organization. At its first annual conference last year, it adopted a constitution and bylaws. A critical next step will be incorporation, says acting regional manager Ed Swayze.

The November meeting was presided over by Archbishop Fred Hiltz, primate of the Anglican Church of Canada, who will also attend an annual Christmas service this year at the international headquarters of Missions to Seafarers in London, U.K.


  • Tali Folkins

    Tali Folkins joined the Anglican Journal in 2015 as staff writer, and has served as editor since October 2021. He has worked as a staff reporter for Law Times and the New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal. His freelance writing credits include work for newspapers and magazines including The Globe and Mail and the former United Church Observer (now Broadview). He has a journalism degree from the University of King’s College and a master’s degree in Classics from Dalhousie University.

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