Seafarers Matter – For a Fair Shipping Sector in Europe

12 December 2017

Speech by Mark Dickinson, general secretary Nautilus International, UK and European Transport Workers' Federation spokesperson – sectoral social dialogue committee for maritime transport, at European Shipping Week 2017, 28 February 2017

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The old Chinese curse – may you live in interesting times – is certainly something we are all having to confront right now. It's been a long time since European and world politics have been quite so unpredictable.

What lies at the heart of this political and economic turmoil? The answer can be found in the nature of the economic reality for so many European workers.

Insecure employment, flexible working, zero hours contracts and bogus self-employment. And that's before we talk about the march of technology and automation in particular. A day does not go by without someone foretelling how many millions of jobs will be lost to robots!

At the heart of Brexit (and you could throw in the election of Donald Trump too) is the real sense felt by many communities that globalisation has not been delivering. The trickle-down theory has failed to protect us from the worst excesses of the market. This should be deeply troubling for the shipping industry which is undoubtedly at the centre of the globalisation project.

And ironically, the most globalised industry in the world – and the industry which made globalisation possible – demonstrates how it's all gone horribly wrong.

Shipping is a microcosm of the damage done by unchecked and unfair competition. The Frankenstein's monster of the flag of convenience system – which invented liability avoidance, tax dodging, rule bending, weak employment rights, limited social protection and opaque corporate structures – is a model for multinational companies who play fast and loose with traditional regulatory systems and, in doing so, manage to be more powerful than many national governments.

Colleagues, in this context is it any wonder that European seafarers feel disillusioned and angry, when we see that Europe accounts for 40% of the world fleet, but an increasingly small and declining fraction of the world's seafarers?

How can it be right that fewer than 40% of the seafaring posts on European ships are filled by EU seafarers?

How can it be right that many workplace rights stop at the shore? And when we argue for improvements, or for EU workers' rights to apply to European seafarers and ships, we are told that this isn't possible as it will undermine our competitiveness.

How can it be right that we see South East Asian pay rates on North West European shipping services?

I hope our panellists today will address these key questions.

For the past 30 years European seafarers have been repeating warnings about the future of the maritime profession within the EU – and conferences as far back as the 1990s addressed the theme of the endangered marine species that is the European seafarer.

Sadly, however, all the fine words have done little to arrest what is still an ominous decline.

The drastic decline in training has left us with an increasingly ageing population of European seafarers and maritime clusters and the wider economy face damaging consequences as that pool of knowledge and experience diminishes as they move towards retirement with woefully inadequate numbers of young seafarers to follow in their footsteps.

It has to be said that while the EU state aid guidelines have helped to soften the impact of this decline, they have failed to arrest it and at best have merely slowed the steady haemorrhage of jobs.

OECD countries now supply 23% of the world's officers and 14% of the world's ratings – compared with 28% of officers and 24% of ratings a decade ago. Are we just meant to accept those trends and decide that seafaring is no longer a first world profession? I don't think so.

We've come to a point in time where we really do have a stark choice. Do we continue on this path – with the consequences that are so evident – or do we find another way?

Greater intellects than I, are suggesting that we need to change course – and have told how that should be done. In a speech last year, the deputy managing director of the International Monetary Fund, David Lipton, warned – I quote –

‘Too many people in the developed world see only a loss of jobs to lower wage destinations. Too many people fear that immigration is compromising their economic well-being'

and he described how it's time for ‘a new form of globalisation that works for all'.

The ETF has always acknowledged that shipping is a worldwide industry and that in many sectors of the industry competition is on a global scale. But we don't believe there's any room for global competition on regional routes and services. All it does is fuel a race to the bottom. That is how we got into this mess.

When we hear talk about the creation of a single maritime transport space across the EU, we shouldn't just see that in the context of harmonising administrative and customs procedures. The social dimension should be as important as the bureaucracy – yet the black hole created by the failure to agree on a manning directive (most recently in 2004) continues to be filled by a steady flow of social dumping in our ferry trades and offshore services.

Globalisation of domestic shipping services simply doesn't work. Regulating the competitive climate for such routes will not only ensure that we combat exploitation in our waters, but also encourage operators to compete on quality, not cost, as well as improving the job security of European seafarers and protecting the maritime skills base and thus the EU maritime cluster. It will allow us to set EU standards and thus set a level playing field for all those who wish to trade in our waters.

Colleagues. we know from Oxford Economics that seafarers are not just essential for sustaining the wider maritime cluster, but also are highly value-added workers – earlier this week we learnt that each EU employee in the shipping industry is estimated to have generated €89,000 of GDP, significantly above the EU average of around €53,000.

It makes sense to support the continued and sustainable supply of EU seafarers. And whilst I may have criticised the state aid guidelines, there is no way that I want to sound ungrateful. They have indeed helped to prevent the extinction of this endangered marine species.

But we must look to the future and we must ask ourselves whether the guidelines should be requiring more return on the investment – and that the operators who benefit from such support should be giving back more in terms of employment and training of EU nationals?

Surely it is reasonable to ask that taxpayers' money should not be spent to employ non EU seafarers?

And how ludicrous it is for state-subsidised EU shipping, employing mostly Far Eastern crew, to complain that they can't access the US coastwise traffic protected by the Jones Act when such trade is unsubsidised, employs 100% US crews and is focused on the strategic needs of the United States?

Instead of attacking the Jones Act, we should emulate it and understand the strategic economic and defence drivers that have ensured the Act's survival for almost 100 years.

And look at Canada, New Zealand and Australia, where in the past few weeks alone, significant steps have been taken to limit the numbers of foreign seafarers employed on ships in coastal waters.

Adequate regulation is what we need for the shipping industry, to stamp out the downwards spiral in seafarers' working lives, support for the maritime cluster and ensure the resilience of European shipping.

We should all remember that the Maritime Labour Convention – that important set of minimum standards (for that is what it is) was conceived as a journey, not a destination. Continuous improvement in those minimum standards is essential but I don't get the feeling that anyone has a strategy to support that goal. It's as if governments and the industry think the job has been done. You could say the same for STCW too.

Colleagues, we need to champion a race to the top both in social, safety and environmental standards.

In drawing my introduction to a close, I return to my opening comments: we certainly live in interesting times.

What lies ahead will surely be more protectionism, CETA may well prove to be a high water for the so called free market. If globalisation cannot reinvent itself as a force that does deliver for the majority of the people and not just a few.

I hope that a "social" globalisation can take root in this most global of industries and start showing that Seafarers Matter. I hope too that we can achieve a Fair Shipping Sector in Europe that generates wealth and employment for EU citizens.

Ultimately, I believe that this not only makes good social sense, it makes economic sense. The choice is ours and we must not waste it.


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