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HeartUnions week from 12 to 18 February 2024 is a chance for seafarer members to tell their story about why joining a trans-boundary Union such as Nautilus International is vital for everyone working at sea. Deborah McPherson outlines some maritime talking points
Anyone who's ever wondered what maritime unions have done for seafarers could start by reading the new history of Nautilus International: Pulling Together – The Making of a Global Maritime Trade Union. It charts the origins of a movement to organise and professionalise maritime workers in three countries, showing how maritime professionals have long worked together across national borders to develop specialist services and support and build pioneering methods of representation and negotiation in a globalised industry.
Here are 5 maritime reasons to #HeartUnions:
1. Your voice at work
If ever a line of work needed a trade union, it's seafaring. Deaths and injuries at sea still compare unfavourably with shore-based jobs, but things have improved greatly since the early 19th century – and that's thanks largely to the actions of unions.
By joining a maritime union which has global affiliations you are also strengthening your voice at work locally and internationally, so you and your colleagues can continue to build better working conditions at sea and ashore.
Modern trade unions will also use their power on behalf of seafarers to campaign and bargain at local and international level. When our members have had enough, they will act, and we have the power to take industrial action in our toolbox.
Nautilus successfully headed off several attempts at fire and rehire tactics in the ferry and cruise sector, for example, and continues to campaign against this tactic through the Seafarers' Wages Bill; and seeks ways to enforce the legislation to ensure another P&O Ferries jobs massacre can't happen.
2. Pay and benefits
Want a pay rise? Join a union! Where members make up the majority of company's workforce in the UK, a union has the right for recognition which means regular bargaining on pay, terms of employment and workplace conditions.
Nautilus International also successfully recovers unpaid wages and benefits for members – for example in the superyacht sector, where the Union recovered a record £1.3 million in 2023. This reflects the continued membership growth in the sector as more yacht professionals come to understand the benefits of union membership.
Nautilus ITF inspectors also regularly visit ships in port to ensure seafarers are paid wages owed on ships registered under flags of convenience, especially those not covered by CBAs.
- Hear more about flags of convenience in the Nautilus podcast series Off course: a sideways look at life at sea, where we interview the ITF's maritime coordinator Jacqueline Smith.
3. Health and safety
Safety laws and training standards have gradually been introduced since the advent of maritime trade unions such as Nautilus and its predecessor unions, and welfare provision has been made for seafarers' families and retired mariners such as the Nautilus Welfare Fund. These weren't 'top down' changes, they originated from a maritime community determined to improve the lives of working people.
Nautilus has also recently called on governments, shipowners and maritime unions to deliver a new social contract for seafarers. Onboard safety is among these fundamental rights which the Union is continuing to highlight.
We are urging the maritime industry to adopt the ITF Manning Policy, which would represent a major step forward in maritime, rather than continuing the competition between flag states to offer the lowest crewing levels.
4. Equality and diversity
Our union toolbox is growing in other ways too. The trade union movement globally is developing links with institutional investors, such as those who invest our pension pots.
These organisations are actively pursuing and embedding environmental, social and governance (ESG) factors in all their investment decisions. Concerns about corporate governance, lack of diversity on boards, directors' pay and the impact of business on the environment. This is where workers and their trade unions come into play.
Nautilus and its predecessors also launched the Victoria Drummond Award in 1981 which continues to commemorates and promote the achievements of women members.
The Union listened to members and created its Equality and Diversity Forum, which meets regularly throughout the year to hear shared experiences and solutions on countering barriers to careers at sea.
5. Supporting individuals
Historically those unions long campaigned and influenced working conditions onboard ships, secured improvements in pay awards, established benevolent funds, got agreement for voting facilities for absent seafarers in parliamentary elections and improvements for cadet training and campaigned against criminalisation of seafarers. We have called on governments to ratify international conventions such as the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) and more recently the Maritime Labour Convention (2006) as well as pushing for more recent key amendments expected to take effect this year to benefit seafarers such as improved social connectivity, protective clothing, well balanced meals, recruitment, repatriation for abandonment and medical care.
Even if a shipping company does not have a collective bargaining agreement with Nautilus, the Union can support individual seafarers at work with legal and workplace advice, as well as certification protection and special deals and discounts.
So, seafarers can look back proudly on achievements which formed the foundations for the work Nautilus International does now on behalf of all maritime professionals. As one maritime community we have an exceptionally strong tradition of activism to build on.
Members can show their support for the TUC #HeartUnions week by sharing Nautilus socials and discussing the benefits of membership with colleagues.