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Global struggle for sailors

Remarkably, all seafarers are protected by an international wage agreement, but we've got to show it delivers, writes MARK DICKINSON

CONSIDERATION of the full implications of our own behaviour is an important element of the progressive mindset. In what conditions is our food produced? Could our vehicles be less polluting? Might our decision-making tend to advantage one group over another? All deserve serious-minded attention.

In the long list of ethical issues that worry us, very few people I meet, without experience of the sea, give much thought to the conditions in which ship’s crews labour.

It is not an obscure issue. Around 90 per cent of all the world’s goods are transported by sea. Look around your home or office. Nearly everything you see has arrived through our ports. And the 1.6 million seafarers who convey those goods work in more dangerous, isolating conditions than almost any other industrial workers — some with very little pay for their trouble.
 
Typically, ships crews sign on for nine months at a time. The vast majority are drawn from the Philippines, China, Ukraine and Russia. Once on board, modern practices — sailing slowly to reduce fuel consumption, loading and unloading at port in a few hours — mean that few spend more than handful of days ashore. Working a minimum 48-hour week — but often over 90 hours — they face multiple privations and even piracy and armed robbery and kidnap.
 
Anthropologist Gunnar Lamvik has spent much of his professional life studying Filipino seafarers, interviewing more than 150. He paints a complex picture of their lives but says that it is very common for them to speak of ships as “prisons” and the time the voyages for which they have signed on as “sentences.”
 
The good news is that they are the only group of workers covered by a global minimum wage agreement. The bad news is that it is set so low — currently $614 a month, equivalent to approximately £2.12 an hour in UK terms. Some shipping lines pay more, but the floor on which all seafarers' remuneration is based is that negotiated between the ship owners and the International Transport Workers Federation, in talks convened by the International Labour Organisation.
 
In November, I will lead the seafarers’ negotiating team to demand not only the first rise in four years but a real increase of at least $50 a month.
 
The usual form in these talks is that the employers set out their stall with a blizzard of negative market and economic indicators. With these they hope to prove that their crews neither require a rise nor do the underlying economic factors make one possible. It is a case that they will struggle to make convincingly in this round.
 
The key preparatory document for negotiation is prepared by the ILO, in its capacity as a neutral “civil service.” This shows that seafarers from 47 countries have seen the purchasing power of their wages fall. In the case of 19 countries the drop has been by more than 10 per cent, in some countries it has been by as much as 15 per cent.
 
Just as important, after a tough decade, the prospects for global trade volumes are looking better than for many years. The International Monetary Fund is currently predicting that 2018 and 2019 will see “the broadest synchronised growth” since 2009. Others predict global growth of around 4 per cent.

World Trade Organisation director general Roberto Azevedo told a press conference in April how he saw the next couple of years, saying: “World merchandise trade volumes will grow nearly as fast in 2018 as they did in 2017, with growth of 4.4 per cent. And we expect that growth will remain quite strong in 2019 at around 4 per cent. It represents the best run of trade expansion since before the crisis, supporting economic growth, development and job creation around the world.”
 
That is not to say that shipping does not face challenges. International trade still depends on reams of time consuming paperwork to certify cargo as it passes from country to country. Today, shipping lines talk excitedly about the prospects of “digitisation” in a way that most industries did more than a decade ago. Competitors promising to be the “Amazon of the seas” are nipping at today’s logistics giants. And, emissions targets require heavy investment, the benefits of which do not appear on balance sheets.
 
For the current shipping lines to prosper, however, what they need more than anything is a committed and enthusiastic workforce that solves problems as they occur, goes the extra mile to hit targets and strives to make seaborne transport a force of which the world can be proud. It goes without saying that paying a decent wage is a vital first step in motivating such a workforce.
 
It is important for the rest of us too. No-one wants goods marked by the taint of unsavoury labour practices, whether that be what the producers are paid or those who convey goods to market.
 
There is a broader issue for the labour movement too. Much attention these days is rightly devoted to how we can reach employees with no experience of union organisation — the million providers of adult social care, for example.
 
Where we have a long-established negotiating framework, in a highly regulated industry, such as we do for seafarers, we must be able to demonstrate that it delivers for workers. Do that, when we are called on to make the case for trades unions in unorganised sectors, then we have an ace up our sleeves.
 
Those roaming the earth’s most distant oceans aboard their floating mountains of containers might well, on first consideration, seem remote. But as with so much in the modern world, the fate of seafarers is actually deeply entwined with every one of us. It is incumbent on those of us who aspire to be progressives to ensure that our engagement with them is as supportive as it is active.
 
For information on how you can support our campaign see www.fairpayatsea.org or follow us at @FairPayAtSea

Mark Dickinson is general secretary of Nautilus International.

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