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A new social contract for seafarers

19 March 2024

For too many in this business – from shipowners to charterers, and, most depressingly, the flag states that have the responsibility to enforce fundamental social and employment rights – seafarers are just commodities

As I reflect on another recent sad event for our industry with news of the deaths of innocent seafarers on the True Confidence – hit by missiles fired by Houthi rebels in the Red Sea – it's difficult to be anything other than pessimistic about the situation that our maritime professionals face just going about their business.

The newly elected secretary-general of the International Maritime Organization (IMO) Arsenio Dominguez was right to point out that seafarers should never become collateral victims. Unfortunately, it seems all too often that is what they are.

It is so wrong but for too many in this business, shipowners, managers, charterers, insurers and most depressingly the flag states that have the responsibility to enforce fundamental social and employment rights, seafarers are just commodities and collateral.

Most seafarers don't come from the country of the flag of the ship upon which they serve, and neither do the owners of the ships. This engenders an 'out of sight, out of mind' mentality (sometimes referred to as 'sea blindness'). But bemoaning this depressing state of affairs is often fruitless. We must redouble our efforts to drive home the message that shipping and seafarers, and all our maritime professionals, are key workers. They are crucial to supply chains and for maritime resilience and security.

There is hope that the tide is turning. The IMO and International Labour Organization (ILO) have pledged to redouble their co-operation and agreed a programme of work in a Tripartite Joint Working Group to address seafarers' issues and the 'human element'. In 2023 we grappled with the abandonment of seafarers, and last month they discussed bullying and harassment – including sexual assault and sexual harassment. Later this year we will tackle the continued criminalisation of seafarers.

Our members will know from the General Meeting last year that the Just Transition is a core issue for Nautilus, and it is important to acknowledge that this is widely understood in the maritime industry. Last month the IMO formally agreed to launch a comprehensive review of STCW. Finally, next year we will again gather in Geneva at the ILO Special Tripartite Committee to consider further amendments to the Maritime Labour Convention.

There is also much hope that on the back of Covid-19, and the shocking treatment of seafarers, there are shipowners that see the world as we do. They share our concerns and want to work together to advance the employment conditions of seafarers.

As an industry there is growing recognition of the need for a new social contract for seafarers and for measures to support good shipowners to enhance the standing of seafarers and go beyond minimum standards. If these measures translate into meaningful action and garner the support from governments and other stakeholders, then I remain hopeful that we can see real recognition and an end to the treatment of seafarers as mere commodities and, yes, collateral victims.

Maritime professionals – all our seafarers and those ashore – are key workers. They deserve a future that is secure, with skills for now and for the years ahead. A diverse, inclusive, and equitable industry that respects and celebrates the roles of maritime professionals.

Our members know that Nautilus International is fulfilling its mission statement to be a leader: we are engaged, and we are influencing the debate to advance their interests. Mark Dickinson, Nautilus general secretary
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From the general secretary January February 2024

Employers take note: trade unions will use their power on behalf of seafarers, says general secretary Mark Dickinson

I often write about partnership, social dialogue and the challenges trade unions face from employers, some of whom no longer seem to value engagement with us as the voice of their employees. Some events in 2023, and the media interest that followed, perhaps offer a salutary message to those who think we can be ignored. When our members have had enough, they will act, and we have the power to take industrial action in our toolbox, plus the power of the media and consumer choice too.

Our toolbox is growing in other ways too. The trade union movement globally is developing links with institutional investors. These people invest our pensions (sometimes referred to as workers' capital) and they are actively pursuing and embedding environmental, social and governance (ESG) factors in all their investment decisions. This is partly about best practice, responding to consumer and individual investor concerns, but also in response to legislation following major scandals of malfeasance and greed. Concerns about corporate governance, lack of diversity on boards, directors' pay and the impact of business on the environment. Now we are seeing increasing attention to the "S" in ESG and this is where workers and their trade unions come into play.

Nautilus is at the heart of this debate, highlighting what nonsense it is to ship raw materials and goods carrying the fairtrade logo on ships where seafarers are being exploited. No question that farmers in the global south should be paid a decent price for their produce. No question that consumers will pay extra to ensure a fair deal for producers. Fairtrade bananas, tea, coffee and chocolate is one thing, but fair transport for seafarers moving these goods to market is our justifiable demand.

The talk of human rights due diligence is about workers in the entire supply chain, not just shipping. Social and employment rights are recognised as human rights and employers increasingly want to reassure regulators, customers and investors that they operate to the highest standards of governance, environmental protection and ensuring decent work throughout the business and third-party transactions.

Nautilus is an active participant in global relations seeking to foster the highest standards for our members and advancing justice for all seafarers. I see much to be hopeful about for the future of our maritime professionals. I know there are many employers, sadly not yet the majority, who understand the winds of change are blowing in the direction of seafarers. They want to actively and genuinely engage with us to advance our industry and those who seek to make their careers in maritime. There is a lot of change happening now and a lot more uncertainty to come. The impact of new technology, artificial intelligence and the necessary actions to decarbonise the shipping industry are key. 

There is much being done, I have written before about the global partnership launched in October 2022 between International Transport Workers' Federation (ITF), the International Maritime Employers' Council (IMEC) and International Chamber of Shipping (ICS). Already these organisations have advanced their partnership to acknowledge the crucial need for unions, employers and governments to elaborate a new social contract for seafarers that builds on the just transition and addresses the recruitment and retention of these key workers.

As we begin 2024, it remains crystal clear to me that we must advance the rights of seafarers. The lessons of the Covid-19 pandemic and the resulting crew change crisis must be learnt. We cannot continue to treat seafarers with disdain and ignore their fundamental rights. If the industry does ignore them, or fails to respond meaningfully, then they need to remember that we have lots of tools in our toolbox, some of them are very powerful indeed and we are learning how to use them!.


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