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Inland waterways: a key moment for workers' rights

11 December 2023

At the first ILO meeting on inland waters in 30 years, workers had their say on the future of the sector

In November 2023 the International Labour Organization (ILO) held its first meeting on inland waterways since 1992 in Geneva – an opportunity for unions, including Nautilus International's Switzerland branch, to promote decent employment on an international basis in discussions with representatives of government and industry.

The International Transport Workers' Federation (ITF) was also there to support the unions.

The collective goal was to improve the inconsistent standards in the sector, where some waterways operate safety rules based on regional reach, whilst other regions lack effective regulations and have high numbers of informal workers.

What was at stake?

'The technical meeting was about consolidating the strongly divergent interests of the three groups involved – labour, government and industry – into realistic recommendations for the ILO,' explains Nautilus industrial organiser Piet Doerflinger.

'This process was very intensive and required countless meetings and consultations within the individual groups. It took five days of negotiations, but the consensus building process was ably moderated by the Norwegian chairperson, Mr Henrik Munthe.'

'Our positions as workers were very skilfully and tenaciously represented by our group's chairperson Mr Yury Sukhorukov, despite the expected resistance from the other two interest groups.'

The ITF sees this as a critical moment to embed labour rights in the industry's future, stating that the meeting was the beginning of a process to elevate the status of the sector and increase its market share while also ensuring it promotes decent employment.

Nautilus's contribution

During the meeting the workers' delegation raised matters that are important to improve the working and living conditions of inland waterways workers.

'My involvement consisted of contributing to the consultations within the labour group in an advisory capacity,' says Mr Doerflinger. 'Important points for me were the inclusion of three aspects into the recommendations: the monitoring of the implementation of labour rights by trade unions and tripartite commissions onboard and at the companies; the right of trade unions to access the workplace; the explicit mention of hospitality and entertainment personnel on passenger vessels as a vulnerable group.

'In the recommendations to the ILO, the wording 'strengthen systems of inspection of labour conditions on board IWW vessels, including through adequate resources, qualified inspectors and harmonisation of inspections among riparian states' and 'promote the ratification of international labour conventions and the effective implementation of the international labour standards and other ILO instruments relevant to the IWW sector' was adopted. In addition, "decent work challenges" were declared for people working on river cruise ships. So yes, Nautilus was able to make a contribution.'

The fight will go on, however. 'Many workers on the world's waterways are seeing a decline in their working conditions and a reduction in their pay and training,' says ITF officer Fabrizio Barcellona. 'This is due to globalisation, market consolidation and increasing deregulation in the sector.' In this context, the positive outcome of the meeting is all the more important.

Key issues agreed

The three parties recognised that:

  • the lack of national and transnational legal frameworks can lead to unfair competition
  • transition to formal employment in the sector is a priority
  • collective bargaining can lead to improved working conditions
  • decent working conditions are crucial to attract women and young people into the sector
  • regulations for all workers are important in areas such as hours of work and rest, medical care, social protection, repatriation, wages, contracts and operational crewing levels
  • the creation, attraction and retention of decent jobs in the sector must be promoted
  • universal access to social protection systems for workers, regardless of nationality, must be promoted
  • enforcement, including through regular inspection of vessels, is critical to improving conditions
  • skills development is an absolute priority given new technological developments

Read the full recommendations here.


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