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Most seafarers are familiar with the concept of the ITF inspector – a representative of the International Transport Workers' Federation who visits ships in port to check that their crews have the pay and living conditions they're entitled to. But it's perhaps less well known that many ITF inspectors are transport union officials on secondment. ITF inspector Paul Keenan, for example, works for Nautilus – or he did until he retired in October 2020.
For Paul, the ITF inspector role has been a fitting culmination of a long career standing up for workers' rights, and a chance to get out of the office and help people face-to-face again. In that sense, it took him back to the start of his time as a trade unionist, which began in the 1970s in Heywood, Greater Manchester.
'I was a bit of a tearaway at school and was expelled at 15 before I could get any qualifications,' he remembers ruefully. 'My first few jobs were all quite short-lasting, but then I got work in a tannery when I was 18 and ended up staying there for 14 years.'
At the tannery, Paul joined NUFLAT – the National Union of the Footwear, Leather and Allied Trades. The tanneries and textile mills in Heywood had many workers' rights issues – often related to payment by piecework – and Paul found that he needed his union's help quite early on. 'But our shop steward wasn't much use with that, so next time there was an election, I stood against him and won!'
The young workplace rep found that he enjoyed standing up for his tannery colleagues, and he also embarked on a purposeful programme of education and training that suited him far better than the school environment. 'I started off with basic trade unionism training through a TUC correspondence course, and found it really interesting,' he remembers. 'And then you'd see courses advertised in our union journal at Wortley Hall – the union movement's training centre in Sheffield. As an elected union rep, I could get a paid afternoon off work on a Friday to go down there and stay for a training weekend until Sunday. It was good to meet new people from different industries and learn about how their collective bargaining worked.'
Alongside the training, Paul got involved in other opportunities offered through his union, such as attending conferences and giving speeches. Eventually, he decided he was ready to leave the tannery and apply for a full-time post with NUFLAT as a union official. First appointed as a district organiser for NW England and Wales, he later moved to carry out the same role in the East Midlands, and then rose through the ranks to district secretary.
By this point, in the early 1990s, NUFLAT had merged with another union to form NUKFAT – the National Union of Knitwear, Footwear and Apparel Trades. The merger had become necessary due to dwindling membership numbers as British jobs in the industry were moved abroad. Eventually, NUKFAT membership had reduced so much that the union no longer needed as many officials, and Paul found himself facing redundancy at the turn of the millennium.
As it happened, though, he had put himself in quite a strong position for a new challenge within trade unionism, as in 1999 he had graduated with an MA in Industrial Relations from Keele University, having studied part-time on this respected degree course for four years through distance learning and residential study weekends.
And so came his move to Nautilus, which was then known in the UK as NUMAST – the National Union of Marine, Aviation and Shipping Transport Officers. Based at the Union's London head office, Paul started out as an industrial officer in 2001, was promoted to the rank of national secretary in 2003 and rose to become senior national secretary and head of industrial in 2009.
Partnership at Work is a way to stop banging heads and do things like creating a better work-life balance for employees Nautilus/ITF inspector Paul Keenan
During his years as an industrial negotiator for Nautilus, Paul says that the best deal he remembers doing was his very first, where, as the 'new boy' he impressed members and employer alike by negotiating a pay rise of 4%.
As the years went by, he enjoyed helping to establish the Nautilus Partnership at Work programme – 'a commitment from company and Union to work together to resolve problems rather than banging heads. It's less confrontational and more successful, and it's enabled us to do things like create a better work-life balance for employees.'
Another thing he is proud of is being a part of creating today's transboundary union Nautilus International. 'One of the main drivers for Nautilus International was working together with colleagues in the Netherlands, in particular the joint negotiating meeting at P&O Ferries and Holland America Line in the cruise industry.'
However, by 2013, he was starting to feel rather desk-bound with reports and committee meetings, and when a vacancy arose for an ITF inspector in the east of England, he knew it was the right fit for him. Moving from his former home in Essex to a village near York, Paul has for the last seven years been covering east coast ports from Berwick-Upon-Tweed in the north to Felixstowe in the south.
Looking back at the highlights of this period, he says: 'I think the offshore vessel Malaviya Twenty was the ship and crew I had most impact on. The ship was Indian flagged and owned and the company was Great Offshore Ltd, or GOL. I attended the vessel in Great Yarmouth in June 2016.
'The company had been signing crew on and off since October 2015 without pay, but with promises to pay wages. I made a claim for wages and repatriation as the crew contracts had expired.
'In the end we arrested the vessel in November 2016. The bank had the mortgage on the vessel and wanted it back as it was worth more than the outstanding wages. In February 2017 I recovered $668,671 in back pay for 31 crew members and the crew were all repatriated.
'This could not have been done without the support and assistance of all the agencies involved: the MCA, Great Yarmouth port authorities, the port chaplain and ship visitors, the lawyers at the ITF and my co-ordinator Ken Fleming – and of course the local community in great Yarmouth. All in all a great team effort.'
Now he can look forward to retirement, Paul's first plan is to finish reading Tolstoy's epic War and Peace. He'll also – as always – be following Manchester United matches, and he's a big fan of Formula 1.
'My wife Sam and I have both been to watch F1 races in Canada, Germany, Italy, Hungary, Spain and of course Silverstone in the UK,' he says. 'We have a motorhome and love travelling with it in Europe. Once things get back to normal after the pandemic, we will be travelling more and going to more F1 races.'