Nautilus International has condemned the refusal of shipowners to approve a standard pay uplift for seafarers as 'disgraceful'.
On Tuesday 27 April seafarers' unions took the extraordinary decision to shut down pay discussions at the International Labour Organization (ILO), after shipowners represented by the International Chamber of Shipping (ICS) demanded that the industry ditch the established practice of using objective ILO minimum wage calculations before they would approve any pay rise.
The ILO Minimum Wage for Seafarers is a long-established mechanism to prevent seafarers worldwide from being exploited. It ensures that their wages are tied to inflation, so that their purchasing power is not diluted over time.
This year, the proposed US$1.40 per day pay rise from the rate agreed in 2018 represents less than the price of a cup of coffee.
Meanwhile international shipping rates are at all-time highs and most shipowners have performed well financially during the Covid-19 pandemic, even as seafarers have battled with exhaustion and overwork during the crew change crisis.
Nautilus general secretary Mark Dickinson, who acts as Seafarers Group spokesperson at the ILO and vice-chair of the Seafarers' Section of the International Transport Workers' Federation (ITF), said:
'For only the second time in the long history of these negotiations the shipowners and the seafarers have failed to agree a revised minimum wage for seafarers That's wholly the fault of the shipowners, who have behaved with such an astounding lack of self-awareness and a lack of respect for the sacrifices of seafarers – especially these past 14 months.
'Seafarers are heroes of the pandemic. They have sacrificed time and again. They have literally risked their lives so that these companies could survive Covid-19 and its economic effects. And now the thanks they get is a slap in the face from the shipowners who are essentially making them choose between pay cuts now or pay cuts later. It's disgraceful.
'By initially holding to ransom any kind of pay rise – even a dollar – to their plan to blow up the ILO formula, the shipowners expose their long-term strategy to undermine the social dialogue that has been so critical to the success and stability of this industry for years, and in doing so threaten the cooperation that we've seen throughout the global pandemic.'
Mr Dickinson further emphasised that research from the International Transport Workers' Federation shows a quarter of seafarers are considering quitting the industry due to the ongoing crew change crisis, and another 23 percent of seafarers were unsure about their future, suggesting a seafarer supply crunch was looming. Pushing wage cuts now or in the future would therefore represent a 'total own goal' for shipowners. Companies were increasingly sharing their private concerns about labour supply to union officials behind closed doors, he revealed.
'Sadly, the result of the shipowners' pay freeze is a pay cut in real terms – accelerating an industry labour shortage. It's hard enough for these companies to recruit seafarers with the crew change issue, I would have thought now would be the time to be investing in your people and making this an industry more attractive to join – not less,' he said.
'We've heard time and time again from shipowners and their representatives that they care about the seafarers, that seafarers are "vital", and "critical" to our industry and the global supply chain. But the moment it comes to recognise the contribution of seafarers and value them practically, by respecting institutions most fundamental to seafarers' welfare and delivering a modest real wage increase – the shipowners show their true colours.'
The failure to agree a rate means that the ITF will now unilaterally determine the ILO minimum wage rate.
'Unlike the shipowners we will respect and keep faith with the ILO formula, which is fair and objective,' said Mr Dickinson.
'We maintain that the revised ILO minimum wage for an able seafarer is a minimum of US$683 per month from the first of January 2022 and we will advise our affiliates and the ILO Governing Body accordingly. We are now preparing to engage robustly with industry stakeholders and wider society to promulgate our views. We will use the extensive networks and media profile established during the crew change crisis to support our campaign for pay fairness for seafarers.
'Our door remains open for further talks should common sense prevail,' he added.