Norwegian vessel trapped in B.C. waters for nearly a month due to local labour dispute

A Norwegian vessel has been trapped at a dock in Kitimat, B.C., unable to refuel as it finds itself caught in the middle of a bitter labour dispute.

The strike at the Kitimat aluminum smelter strike, pitting Rio Tinto against members of Unifor 2301, is now into its fifth week, with more than 900 people in the northwestern community on the picket line

But caught in the cross hairs is the MV Indiana, a Norwegian-operated vessel belonging to shipping company Sago Welco.

It docked at Kitimat Harbour on July 30, but, so far, the ship has been unable to refuel because Arbutus Point Marine Limited, the fuelling company’s contractor, won’t cross the picket line.

“The MV Indiana and its crew are not a party to this dispute. They are a collateral participant,” said Marc Gawthrop, the managing director of the fuelling company.

“They are stuck basically.”

The union is calling for improved retirement income and benefits, while also raising a number of grievances. Rio Tinto operates the aluminum smelter and powerhouse.

The Norwegian vessel also risks being in violation of federal regulations due to the holdup.

All vessels operating in Canadian waters must use low sulphur fuel, but the MV Indiana only has enough to last until the end of August, at which point, they will be forced to switch to a high sulphur fuel they have on board, regardless of regulations.

“They’re going to have to use the non-compliant fuels to run their generators. They really have no choice. Because if they don’t, they are going to have to allow the vessel to go dark,” said Gawthrop.

He said the generators are needed to keep the crew on board comfortable while the labour dispute plays out, especially since they are unable to leave the ship or have visitors due to the pandemic.

“I fail to see how blocking the ship and putting the crew at risk advances the interest of either Rio Tinto or Unifor 2301,” said Gawthrop, adding that allowing the crew to live comfortably on the ship would be the minimum courtesy.

“But I see perhaps courtesy is in short supply. As is the fuel.”

The master of the MV Indiana sent a statement to both the union and Rio Tinto on Aug. 15 asking it kindly be allowed to refuel, according to the Terrace Standard.

Unifor 2301 president Martin McIlwrath is less than sympathetic and says it’s the vessel’s own fault.

“They made the decision to cross the picket line. They put themselves in this situation,” he said.

He says his union will not discuss the issue with the vessel manager or the shipping company and will only work toward a resolution with the International Transportation Federation.

Sago Welco says crew members are in good spirits, despite the holdup.

Rio Tinto and Unifor 2301 have agreed to meet on Monday to discuss a return to bargaining.

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