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International organisations agree joint plan at ILO to improve gender balance at sea

29 March 2019

Seafarer, shipowner and government representatives came together from across the globe at the International Labour Organisation (ILO) in Geneva in March 2019 to set objectives for improving the  recruitment and retention of women seafarers. 

Seafarers were represented at the meeting by a number of unions affiliated to the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) – including Nautilus International.

Following five days of intensive discussion, a 34-point conclusions document was produced which included actions for all parties to take to increase the number of females at sea, including:

  • jointly addressing all issues related to the recruitment and retention of seafarers and the promotion of opportunities for women seafarers
  • ensuring that the fundamental principles and rights at work, especially in relation to equality of treatment and equal opportunities, are applied to all seafarers
  • publicising opportunities for women at sea and ashore
  • encouraging the inclusion of women’s voices when developing policies and social dialogue
  • identifying role models and establishing mentoring and networking programmes for women seafarers

'The meeting was incredibly constructive,' said Nautilus head of strategy Debbie Cavaldoro. 'It was positive that so many shipowners and governments were represented, and that through social dialogue we were able to come together to set in place a number of initiatives that will support  seafarers in general and female seafarers in particular.'

The meeting was 'incredibly constructive,' but not all delegates agreed to outlaw mandatory pregnancy testing

One issue which was not resolved at the meeting was the mandatory pregnancy testing of women seafarers, which is still permitted under the laws of a few countries. Despite strong opposition to the practice from the seafarers' representatives and many European government delegates, the shipowners and those countries which permit the practice argued that it was part of their duty of care.

Shipowner representatives told the meeting that pregnancy testing was permitted as part of the medical examination because the examination  included a scan which could be harmful to pregnant woman and their foetus. They claimed that the results of any such test are confidential and not
shared with employers.

However, ITF maritime coordinator Jacqueline Smith said the practice was blatantly discriminatory. 'Women with uncomplicated pregnancies are allowed to work on ships up until a certain point, but shipping companies want to avoid the costs of support and standing them down when necessary,' she argued. 'It's absolutely ludicrous that the ship owners were so bold in saying: "We do this because we care".'

Ms Cavaldoro added that it was shameful that the practice was still allowed under national legislation in some countries, despite being in contravention of United Nations principles on non-discrimination. 'It is clear that compulsory pregnancy testing is being used in some sectors to deny women the right to work and make their own career and life choices,'
she said.

The meeting did agree that mandatory pregnancy testing was a concern for many women seafarers and pledged to conduct further research and consideration.

Image: Delegates to the ILO conference on gender balance at sea, including Nautilus representative Debbie Cavaldoro.


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