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Empowering seafarers: The rising influence of trade unions

17 January 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!.

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 and increasingly the power of ESG too Mark Dickinson, Nautilus general secretary
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From the general secretary November December 2023

Our General Meeting celebrated the Union's achievements for members over the past four years, and set the stage for our Just Transition campaign.

As your general secretary I had the honour and privilege to play a key role in the fourth General Meeting of Nautilus International.

The meeting, held in Liverpool in October, was a fantastic celebration of all that we have achieved together for members and all we plan to achieve in the future.

The meeting was attended by more than 160 delegates and observers from our branches in the UK, the Netherlands and Switzerland, as well as friends from the Nautilus Federation-affiliated unions from around the world. It was also livestreamed online for the benefit of our members who could not be with us in person.

The meeting was an opportunity to reflect on the challenges and opportunities that we have faced in the past four years, as well as to set the direction and priorities for the next four years.

We adopted 12 resolutions, covering a range of important matters such as the decarbonisation of shipping, fair treatment of seafarers, diversity and inclusion in the maritime sector, and the mental health and wellbeing of our members.

One of the resolutions addressed the theme of the meeting – the Just Transition. This resolution called for Nautilus to work with governments, employers and other stakeholders to ensure that the transition to a low-carbon economy is fair and equitable for maritime professionals, and that they are provided with the necessary skills, training and support to adapt to the changes.

With the GM concluded, we have a clear understanding of our mission, our objectives and a long term vision, and must now focus on our goal to create a just and sustainable future for our members and all maritime professionals.

So, I was pleased to see the International Labour Organization Committee on Freedom of Association (CFA) has issued a statement condemning the UK government for its lack of action and accountability in the case of P&O Ferries, which unlawfully sacked 786 seafarers in March 2022 without warning or consultation.

The CFA has called on the UK to strengthen its labour laws and enforcement mechanisms to prevent another jobs massacre. The CFA's declaration clearly outlines how the balance of power in the UK is very much in favour of employers, with anti-union legislation creating multiple barriers protecting members at work.

There must now be a rebalance in UK law.

The government must take heed of the CFA's recommendations and act upon them if it does not want a repeat of P&O Ferries.

Peace and goodwill

As the year draws to a close, I would like to thank members for your continued support andsolidarity. It has been a challenging year for themaritime sector. We have faced some of the most egregious attacks on our employment rights and collective bargaining, but we have fought back with determination and resilience.

I wish all our members a peaceful and joyful holiday season. Please stay safe and healthy and remember: wherever you are, so are we.

Happy holidays and best wishes for 2024!

From the general secretary September October 2023

Without maritime professionals, there can be no technological transition: it's time for shipowners to speak up for seafarers

The maritime industry is at a crossroads. The Covid-19 pandemic exposed the fragility and vulnerability of the global supply chain,the plight of seafarers and challenges for national resilience. The climate crisis has increased the urgency of the transition to a low-carbon economy, and the need for that transition to be fair and just for all workers not least those in the maritime industry. The technological transformation has created new opportunities and challenges for the skills and competencies of seafarers, as well as the quality and security of their work.

How can we navigate these turbulent waters and chart a course for a sustainable and prosperous future for all who work in the maritime industry? The answer is social dialogue.

I have written before on these pages about the crucial role that social dialogue can play to resolve the issues we face. I remain fearful that many governments and too many employers do not value the voice of workers. They do not respect us and think they can manage without engaging with trade unions. This is foolhardy in the extreme.

I had the privilege of participating in the Seafarer 20250 summit in Manila. It was hosted under auspices of the Global Partnership signed last October in Singapore by the International Transport Workers' Federation (ITF), International Chamber of Shipping, and the International Maritime Employers' Council (IMEC). The summit brought together representatives from unions, ship owners, crewing agents and government to discuss the challenges and opportunities related to seafarer training, recruitment and retention. Socialdialogue was at the heart of the agenda.

The summit called for a new social contract for seafarers, based on mutual respect, trust, and collaboration. It urged governments to create investment and funding streams to address the skills gap and the just transition in the maritime industry. The summit also emphasised the need to create opportunities for seafarers to use their experience and qualifications to transition to shore-based jobs. It recommended that policy makers should collect and analyse data on the value of maritime professionals to national economies.

Social dialogue is the key to ensuring that the maritime industry continuously improves but is also sustainable and resilient in the face of the huge change before us.

It is time for good shipowners to speak up and speak loudly in support of working with us to build that better future for the sake of all maritime nations and for all those who seek to work and forge careers in this fantastic industry.

From the general secretary July August 2023

Nautilus's Symposium in the Netherlands showed that the industry must adapt if it is to attract and retain young people recent Nautilus Netherlands branch symposium in Rotterdam posed the question: 'How do we make the maritime industry more attractive to young people?'

It's a thorny issue that we are grappling with also in the UK branch and across the world, with a deepening global shortfall in Merchant Navy officers predicted while around a third of current serving officers in Europe are set to retire in the next few years.

We heard from Dutch students at the symposium that many young people are increasingly 'calling it quits' after five or six years at sea. For many young people, being away at sea for a long time is increasingly a problem, and that online connection to family and friends is not negotiable. We also heard that access to leisure facilities onboard and employee involvement in company decision-making are also very important.

Sadly, we learned that career opportunities for far too many female seafarers continue to be curtailed due to outdated onboard roster patterns that don't support parents with young children, or those wanting to start a family. Seafaring families of all types would benefit from a radical rethink of time onboard. The Covid-19 pandemic taught us that life is precious and all too fleeting, and in maritime we were not insulated from the 'great quitting' that resulted as many workers reassessed their priorities. Outdated employment practices are being rejected – for the benefit of all – and shipping must respond to this challenge.

It is so very important that we make sure our industry is one that people want to work in, particularly as our world continues to change in ways we can only start to imagine, as we move towards decarbonisation and 'net zero' in shipping and as we advocate for a Just Transition that sees no seafarer left behind.

Unions showing the way

A maritime industry that is full of hope, aspiration and opportunity, that provides decent work with good wages and conditions, medical care, training opportunities, career advancement and security in retirement, is an industry worth being part of.

I was proud to take that message to the International Transport Workers' Federation (ITF) Seafarers' Expo in Manila on International Day of the Seafarer, which gave thousands of seafarers and their families the opportunity to speak with ITF inspectors, as well as legal, labour and health experts, about the issues affect their working lives.

Maritime professionals of all ages, genders, ethnicities and experience need to know that this industry is one in which they can have long and successful careers – supported and empowered by their trade unions.

This starts as soon as a young person begins their maritime training, and that is why Nautilus has called for urgent action from the UK government to address shortcomings in the UK cadet training system that have been identified by the Maritime Skills Commission.

I would like to see UK cadet training programmes being modernised and administered centrally in the best interests of students, not fragmented and not based on the financial interests of sponsoring shipowners or their contracted training providers. By treating cadets with dignity, supporting them in the move to sea, giving them choice where they study, and ensuring they have enough to live on, we will provide a strong foundation for a lifelong career in maritime – at sea and ashore. It is surely in the national interest and our politicians have a duty to understand this.

From the general secretary May June 2023

Industry must commit to strengthening the maritime workforce after the expiry of the OWWC

The government has finally decided to end the Offshore Wind Workers Concession (OWWC), which allowed foreign seafarers to work on offshore wind projects in UK territorial waters without visas or work permits.

This concession, which was introduced in 2017, expired on 30 April 2023 and will not be renewed. From now on all seafarers working on offshore wind farms in the UK sector will need to have the appropriate residency, visa, or work permit under UK law.

This is a victory for Nautilus International and for our members. We have been fighting for the end of this concession, which we believe has diluted local employment, disincentivised investment in coastal communities and undermined employment conditions. The concession was completely at odds with UK government policy enshrined in the industry-endorsed Maritime 2050 strategy.

The offshore wind sector is a key part of the UK’s green energy transition and has the potential to create thousands of jobs for local seafarers.

The end of the OWWC is an opportunity to ensure that the offshore wind sector is fair and sustainable for all workers involved. After six squandered years it is time for employers to work with us to develop a skilled and diverse workforce that can meet the demands of this growing sector. We should be working together to agree on fair pay, fair terms and conditions of employment, health and safety standards,and training and career development.

We believe that the offshore wind sector should commit to supporting the growth of our maritime skills base by offering apprenticeships, cadetships and other training opportunities for local seafarers, and to the upskilling of qualified seafarers on type-specific systems. This would provide a pipeline of talent for the future as underscored in Maritime 2050.

We look to the Netherlands, with its ambitious Offshore Wind Energy Road Map, as more coastal countries look to the sea to solve energy needs. We will be doing our utmost to ensure that the plans for offshore wind in the Netherlands result in quality local employment opportunities, investment in local communities, and the building of the lasting skills needed to move to net zero by 2050.

The offshore wind sector has a huge potential to contribute to our net zero ambitions and to create economic benefits for coastal communities. However, this potential can only be realised if the sector is built on a foundation of fair work and social justice. Nautilus is committed to making this happen and we stand ready to work with employers and governments to achieve this goal.

Our maritime professionals deserve a fair share of the offshore wind boom.

Together, we can make sure that this sector of the maritime industry is fit for the future and that our members are not left behind.

From the general secretary March April 2023

In the lead up to the anniversary of P&O Ferries' mass-sacking on 17 March, I called on government to close the loopholes in employment legislation that allowed the company to abrogate its responsibilities, and to start working with unions rather than attacking them.

P&O Ferries exploited significant loopholes in UK legislation and exposed the serious imbalance between the rights of workers and those of corporations. It turbo charged a race to the bottom and undermined Maritime 2050, the government's flagship policy for the sector.

Despite widespread public anger, the government's response has not protected seafarers from summary dismissal, nor closed the loopholes. The much-vaunted Seafarers' Wages Bill, which will extend national minimum wage coverage to seafarers regularly entering UK ports, is not enough. The Seafarers' Welfare Charter is voluntary and weak, in fact leading UK ferry operators have told me it achieves absolutely nothing and will not protect UK seafarer employment.

Nautilus has taken a pragmatic view – the 9-point plan represents important steps in the right direction, but it cannot be the end of government intervention to support sustainable employment and career opportunities for our maritime professionals. The warning from the ferry industry should cause deep concern and I have urged the government to act without delay.

Government must deliver on its commitment to create minimum wage corridors between the UK and neighbouring countries notably France, Netherlands and Belgium. It must also ensure safe working patterns are part of these arrangements and commit to amending trade union legislation to stop companies from buying their way out of consulting us – and it must outlaw fire and rehire. Company directors who behave like those of P&O Ferries must be held accountable.

As the anniversary of that day approaches the government no doubt plans to laud their delivery of the 9-point plan. At the same time it is also pushing through legislation aimed at undermining the right to strike. Make no mistake this is an attack on your fundamental rights as maritime professionals.

Rather than attacking trade unions and their members the government should work with us. At Nautilus I can promise a willing partner if the aim is a genuine and mutual ambition to grow opportunities for sustainable employment in a strategically important industry and prevent another P&O Ferries scenario from ever happening again.

However, as I write this, I am deeply concerned for the future of Maritime 2050 and the job security of the key workers who underpin the entire sector and who make an immense contribution to our economy.

The next 12 months will prove to be a crucial time for the maritime industry. Does it want to grow and develop the skills base or does it want to go down the P&O Ferries route?

From the general secretary January February 2023

Welcome to 2023. We have a lot to look forward to this year. In October members will gather in Liverpool for the fourth General Meeting of Nautilus International, to review and renew our strategic priorities for the coming four-year cycle and to cement the future direction of the Union.

In 2022 I presented a mid-term report on our progress to the Council, and members can see my report by logging into My Nautilus.

Over the past four years we have been working hard to future proof the Union through our 2030 Vision. The goal of that vision is to achieve longterm financial sustainability. Part of that vision is to explore a digital future. To create an ever-greater digital experience for our members of the future.

The 2030 Vision has a strong emphasis on internationalism – an important focus given the global nature of our industry and our three branches, the UK, the Netherlands and Switzerland. But it also resonates with our work with likeminded unions in the Nautilus Federation.

It provides a commitment to organise, campaign and deliver innovative services and benefits to members, and continue to provide high quality welfare services to seafarers and their dependants.

A union is only as solid as its members, so I am pleased to see a strong line-up of nominees for the Council elections. Becoming a member of the Council provides an opportunity for you to get involved and help build the future of Nautilus International.

Voting opens in the category requiring an election at the end of January so look out for your elections pack in the post (yes I know it's old fashioned postal ballots but that's the law in the UK so we have to do it).

P&O Ferries one year on

One year on from the scandal of P&O Ferries' unlawful sacking of 786 UK seafarers and it feels very much as if little has changed in labour relations in the UK. The government brought forward legislation to allow agency workers to be hired to break strikes. Further restrictions on the right to strike are now being promised to limit a trade union's ability to take industrial action – especially in the transport sector, with so called minimum service obligations being strongly mooted.

Since that fateful day on 17 March 2022, we have been working hard to ensure the UK government delivers on its nine point plan. The Seafarers' Wages Bill, currently progressing through the houses of parliament, seeks to prevent another P&O Ferries from ever happening again.

The bill needs to be strengthened, but importantly, it won't solve the underlying problem of social dumping in UK and European waters unless commensurate action is taken to deliver the promised bilateral minimum wage corridors with neighbouring countries. The most important of these is with France and we are working with the French seafarer unions to deliver that goal.

We have long been warning governments and the shipping industry of the need for a sustainable approach to maritime skills that serves national and European strategic interests. An approach that drives employment, investment in training, career opportunities and decent living and working conditions for European seafarers.

P&O Ferries and other rogue employers may think they got away with it, but there is still much to fight for and we intend to keep up the pressure.


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