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'Pirates' lead the charge for cruise ship labour rights

VANCOUVER - Activists calling themselves ‘Pirates of Justice’ plan to gather at the Port of Vancouver Saturday to draw attention to the labour conditions aboard cruise ships.

“We’re hoping that 100 or 200 people will converge on Canada Place dressed as pirates and that we’ll be able to raise some awareness about injustice in the cruise ship industry,” said event organizer Craig Greenfield, who also goes by ‘Blackbeard.’

The organizers thought the costume-themed event would an effective way to highlight the fact that many employees are overworked and underpaid, he said.

“I think we’re all kind of tired of the sober-faced protests and they don’t seem to make a great deal of impact,” he said. “We just wanted to make this a fun family event.”

Events like this are encouraging and necessary in combating the widespread lack of knowledge about labour practices in the industry, said Ross Klein, a social work professor at Newfoundland’s Memorial University and a cruise ship industry watchdog.

“I think awareness is still pretty low,” he said. “Certainly the public needs to be aware of this.”

In addition to having to work long days with little rest, Klein said the living conditions and food provisions that budget cruise lines offer their workers are often very substandard.

“Their living conditions are relatively cramped and there isn’t a lot of privacy,” he said. “And the food they are served doesn’t resemble what the passengers are eating.”

Another major issue is the sexual assault and sexual abuse that women in the industry face, said Klein. “Female workers are quite vulnerable on cruise ships,” he said.

According to the International Transport Workers’ Federation there are approximately 150,000 people worldwide who work on cruise ships.

The nature of the industry means that cruise lines often shop around for a country with low labour standards, and even basic international regulations such as minimum wage are often not observed, said Klein.

“There’s nobody to enforce the international regulations, as minimal as they are,” he said.

Organizers of the Pirates of Justice event are hoping that when people find out about what's happening on cruise ships, both passengers and the wider public will take action and demand justice for workers.

“We think that if we can raise awareness in Vancouver -- where it’s right under our noses and where lots of people take cruises -- that passengers will begin to ask for better treatment for employees,” he said.

Greenfield points to ethical products such as fair trade coffee as a model for how consumers can have an influence.

“When there is a demand for 'fair trade' cruise ships, that’s when the industry will begin to change because it’s all about the bottom line,” he said.

The pirates and their allies will gather Saturday July 18 at 1 p.m. at Vancouver’s Canada Place.

Garrett Zehr reports for The Tyee.

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