Source: Wikimedia Commons

What would normally be a profitable time of the year for B.C. Ferries has instead become a financial and organizational disaster. Ongoing ferry cancellations have disrupted both passenger and commercial traffic throughout Vancouver, the Gulf Islands and Victoria. The cause of the bulk of these cancellations is ongoing staff shortages with little end in sight.

Ferry cancellations first became a problem in late spring, but have continued into the busy summer months. In the past, one or two cancellations could be expected, but now a dozen cancelled ferries in a single day has become the norm. And these aren’t just small tugboats either, the ferries which travel between Victoria and Vancouver carry approximately 2,100 passengers, and 350 cars and trucks. This has had a serious impact on provincial commerce, tourism, and even the ability of workers to get to their jobs.

B.C. Ferries is trying to return to pre-pandemic service levels, but after furloughing over a thousand workers, roughly 20 per cent of staff in 2018, combined with years of minimal travel during the pandemic, the workforce to operate as they had done in the past is simply not there. There is also the fact that many workers are nearing retirement, meaning B.C. Ferries is often unable to meet the minimum legal requirements to set sail. To top it all off, COVID-19 is not done wreaking havoc, as absenteeism has reached 11 per cent, nearly double the norm. As a representative for the company cited, “It’s people calling in sick” 

These factors combined create a perfect storm of staffing shortages. The remaining workers are overworked, leading to more people calling in sick, seeking out a different job or an early retirement, exacerbating the problem and leading to further cancellations and more stressful working conditions. Left on its own, B.C. Ferries has failed to provide the transportation promised to British Columbians.

What has been tried?

B.C. Ferries were slow to react to this crisis. In May, 800 workers were hired in anticipation of more travel. An advertising campaign and hiring bonuses were employed in an attempt to bring workers back, but ultimately these efforts failed to attract enough people. Additionally, almost all 800 workers were hired for entry-level positions. There is currently a global shortage of skilled mariners and specialized marine workers. This is the primary issue for B.C. Ferries. On August 8th, Mark Collins, B.C. Ferries president, told CBC that the company was short “approximately 60 officer and 50 other key positions”. This means underpaid workers at B.C. Ferries are being poached for better paying jobs elsewhere in the industry, and the chronic shortages and therefore continued service disruptions are likely to continue.

In addition to better pay at other marine companies, there are plenty of other reasons for workers to avoid getting a job at B.C. Ferries. In June of 2020 a worker drowned while on the job. One year later, WorkSafeBC determined that B.C. Ferries had violated safe working conditions and fined B.C. Ferries nearly $680,000. Why would anyone want to be overworked at a job which pays less, and is more dangerous? Once again, B.C. Ferries is failing in its obligations, this time to its own workers.

As a result of all the mismanagement and incompetence, on July 22nd the CEO of B.C. Ferries was fired after 173 canceled sailings in 28 days, and replaced by CFO Jill Sharland. This move was a desperate attempt to show that something was being done. Unfortunately this “something” isn’t much at all. Replacing bureaucrats and executives at the top is a time-honored tradition of governments and corporations in crisis, but putting lipstick on a pig won’t make it any prettier. The core issues will remain; a profit driven business hostile to the union and dismissive of public need.

Privately managed, “publicly owned”

The beginning of the current period of mismanagement goes back to 2003, when the B.C. Liberals privatized the B.C. Ferries crown corporation. But instead of a simple sale to the private sector, the Liberals created a convoluted system of ownership, subsidies, and control of B.C. Ferries, where the company is organized as a privately held entity, with the sole voting share belonging to the B.C. Ferry Authority, an “independent, no-share capital corporation” owned by the province of British Columbia.

B.C. Ferries is a private actor in the capitalist market, and therefore it is forced to behave like every other capitalist enterprise. It attacks its workers, and their trade union, it increases fares, it cuts corners to lower costs, and pays its executives handsomely. It looks like a private corporation, swims like a private corporation, and even quacks like a private corporation! And yet, B.C. Ferries relies on subsidies from the federal and provincial governments to stay in a healthy financial position. In December 2020, B.C. Ferries received a massive $308 million subsidy from the province under the “Safe Restart Funding Agreement”, when COVID-19 decimated ridership and prevented normal operations. This strange relationship with the provincial government only compounds the contradictions it operates under. Not only is it made to contend with market forces, B.C. Ferries is also required to meet minimum service requirements set by the province, regardless of profitability or inefficiency. B.C. Ferries is stuck between the rock of legal requirements and the hard place of the market.

 Not even the world’s smartest, most overpaid CEO could resolve this contradiction. With the current system of ownership, B.C. Ferries is pushed to comply with market forces and cut unprofitable routes to stay in the black, leaving thousands of people stranded or forcing them to move from their homes. If the agreements with the provincial government forbid cutting unprofitable routes, it falls deeply in debt or requires bigger and bigger subsidies.

It’s clear that the current ownership structure and management of B.C. Ferries is leading to its collapse. This shows that government ownership alone, especially corporations which are mismanaged, or exist to serve the interests of capitalism, cannot provide for the needs of ordinary people. 

Transportation, especially for those who live on small islands on the coast with limited access to healthcare and other services, is absolutely essential. With the productive capacity that exists in our society today,  these basic services are more than possible. What is needed is a well funded ferry service, nationalized under workers control. Only the ferry workers themselves know how to run the service efficiently and safely. Because capitalism has shown that it is incapable of even maintaining transportation services, the only way to secure them is to fight for socialism and workers control.