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Remember Seafarers who keep trade flowing

20 March 2020

With the world in the midst of a global health pandemic, general secretary Mark Dickinson expresses concern about the impact on the shipping industry and calls for special measures to protect seafarers

In the 1930s, the MP Lady Nancy Astor suggested to the UK parliament that seafarers should be compelled to wear yellow armbands when ashore to warn others they were potential carriers of venereal disease.

One would like to think the world has moved on since then, but sadly the outbreak of the Covid-19 coronavirus has once again seen seafarers bearing the brunt of this global pandemic. We have already witnessed ships being denied entry to port, shore leave being denied, crew changes prohibited, pre-employment screening of seafarers, and flag states requesting exemptions from the strict requirements of the Maritime Labour Convention (MLC) so that crew can be denied repatriation. Worryingly, some of these actions are in breach of international conventions on human rights and the facilitation of maritime traffic.

I cannot recall a time when such an unexpected development has resulted in such frenetic activity, bordering upon panic, across the entire world. As the list of countries with outbreaks of the Covid-19 virus grows longer by the day, the numbers of confirmed infections spiral by the hour. And with an escalating rate of morbidity in excess of 3% of those infected, this alarm is surely justified.

I am genuinely concerned about the impact on seafarers and their ability to work, join and leave their ships. Reports of the selfless action of crews on vessels such as the Dutch-registered Westerdam and the UK-registered Diamond Princess – which have many Nautilus members onboard – left me feeling humbled.

Such huge cruise ships, each with thousands of passengers and hundreds of crew members in lockdown, in a medical emergency that ultimately, in the case of the Diamond Princess, led to the reported deaths of six passengers. It is hard to imagine what it would be like for all concerned, not least for the maritime professionals who continue to do their duty in such harrowing circumstances.

These developments remind me of last month’s comment about the MLC, because it stipulates a 12-month maximum tour of duty, reduced to 11 months onboard as a seafarer is entitled to paid annual leave to be taken within the year. That standard, and the experience of the response to viral outbreaks at sea, must now surely be considered in any forward-looking strategy to improve the MLC.

While it is good to see the International Labour Organisation and the International Chamber of Shipping producing guidelines that underline the need to prioritise the health and safety of crew, the impact of the Covid-19 outbreak on our members and the shipping industry is growing by the day.

Global trade is slowing, events, meetings, conferences are being cancelled and all but essential travel is cut. Travel restrictions are being placed on over-70s.

All of this is having a devastating impact on the ferry and cruise sectors, raising serious questions about the impact on the jobs of our members. Business as usual is most definitely not on the agenda for now and the immediate future, but any response by governments much be measured, targeted and not damage the industry or jeopardise the employment of our members.

With 90% of everything moving by sea to do so would be an act of utmost folly.

Seafarers as ever will be among those facing the consequences of this pandemic as one thing has not changed over the centuries: germs follow people, people follow trade and facilitating trade is our business.

The critical role of seafarers needs to be recognised and special measures introduced now to ensure the shipping industry can continue to keep the world moving. That must include reassurances over job security, extra medical protection and testing and the facilitation of crew rotation and repatriation.

And let’s not forget amid all this frenetic activity that the rights of seafarers under international conventions must be respected.

Facilitating trade is our business ‒ for which we should get more respect, better protection and greater recognition Nautilus general secretary Mark Dickinson
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From the general secretary January 2020

Corrosive flags of convenience have undermined national flags, says Nautilus general secretary Mark Dickinson. We must support flag states that exercise effective control.

As we start the new year, we recommit to being an action-focused, modern and dynamic union, driven by a clear organising strategy, says Nautilus general secretary Mark Dickinson

As we enter a new decade in which disruption is the name of the game and technology transforms our world, shipping is at the centre of the evolving storm.

The industry is at the heart of our globalised just-in-time economy. Every hour of every day, thousands of vessels are on the oceans and rivers connecting countries and keeping global trade moving. But while shipping's importance remains unchanged, the way it works – and the ways in which its people work – are facing transformation.

Nautilus International has worked long and hard on our four-year Strategic Plan and 2030 Vision adopted at the General Meeting in October 2019. It puts in place a proactive response to ensure that we remain relevant, responsive and financially sustainable for the future.

This year will be critical for the delivery of this vision. We are focused on developing new ways of working, new ways of organising, new ways of campaigning, and new ways of servicing our members that demonstrate our continued relevance.

We will keep our organisation at the cutting edge, responding to globalisation's challenges with, for example, the Nautilus Federation of like-minded ITF affiliated unions providing a worldwide support and assistance network based on cooperation and collaboration.

We look to the future with optimism, but we face a double whammy. The demographics of our membership mean that around one-third of our members will reach retirement age over the next decade. Despite the renewed investment in skills in the UK and NL the numbers coming into the shipping industry are falling short of the numbers leaving. It's very clear that we can't continue as we are. If that sounds stark, it's meant to.

The 2030 Vision is our response – a positive vision for the future based not on fear of the unknown, but a clear track of hope. Because we don't just face risks and challenges, we also face opportunities, and we are determined to seize them.

Our 2030 Vision will strengthen our recruitment efforts, continuing our growth in the superyacht and windfarm sectors, capitalising on the potential in inland waterways and river cruises and seizing the opportunities offered in fishing, through the new ILO Convention 188.

Our 2030 Vision will transform the way we work – we will relaunch Nautilus as an action-focused, modern and dynamic union and professional organisation, driven by a clear organising strategy, that is innovative, creative and, above all, proactive and professional.

The 2030 Vision is our blueprint for the future – a sustainable future that ensures that the scale of the challenges faced by Nautilus is matched by the scale of its ambition. Nautilus is proud to say that Wherever You Are So Are We. That will continue to be but we will also focus greater efforts on supporting you throughout your career journey in a positive and aspirational way.

Happy New Year!


From the general secretary February 2020

A long term vision is needed if the Maritime Labour Convention (MLC) is to become a 'passport to decent work for seafarers', says Nautilus general secretary Mark Dickinson, who is also a vice-chair of the International Transport Workers' Federation Seafarers' Section. He discusses some strategies for improvements to the upcoming MLC amendments on living and working condition due to come into force later this year

The Maritime Labour Convention (MLC) has now been ratified by 96 countries, representing 91% of the world fleet by gross tonnage, and there are good prospects of reaching 100 signatories soon.

The MLC has been a remarkable success and truly is the fourth pillar of global regulation alongside STCW, SOLAS and MARPOL.

In around 12 months I will be attending the 4th meeting of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) Special Tripartite Committee (STC). This is the committee provided for in Article XIII of the Maritime Labour Convention 2006 (as amended) that is charged with developing amendments so that seafarers’ living and working conditions are continuously improved. So far three sets of amendments have been agreed in 2014, 2016 and 2018 – the latter will come into force in December this year.

In my capacity as one of the vice-chairs of the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) Seafarers’ Section I have been asked to act as the spokesperson for the Seafarers’ Group at the STC meeting.

If confirmed in due course, it will be my task to put forward the views of the seafarer unions and to engage in negotiations with the shipowner and government groups to hopefully agree further amendments to the MLC. Work has begun with discussions both at ITF and jointly between ITF and the International Chamber of Shipping (ICS).

I have been advocating for a longer-term vision and a strategy for improvements to the MLC. At the heart of the convention is an understanding that minimum standards must be enhanced. The MLC has always been a journey not a destination, ‘a passport to decent work for seafarers’ as Nautilus honorary member Dr Cleo Doumbia-Henry has said.

It is the obligation of all those associated with the MLC to advance the current minimum standards, but we need to know where we want to be in 10, 20 and 30 years and beyond.

It is therefore time for the tripartite parties to focus on truly enhancing seafarer protection so that the MLC becomes ever more meaningful and appreciated by seafarers.

One of the improvements Nautilus will be calling for is to the working and rest hour regimes. Why are seafarers still working over 90 hours per week when technological advances could potentially reduce workloads to much more manageable levels?

Instead of improving the work life balance for seafarers, I can anticipate many shipowners arguing that technological advances will deliver cost savings through reduced numbers of seafarers onboard, leaving those who remain to continue working outrageously long hours. The current fad for ‘wellbeing’ to be addressed by introducing awareness training is not a silver bullet but ending the deeply engrained culture of long working hours surely is.

It is also time for greater powers to enforce the ILO minimum wage.

Currently contained in Code B and non-mandatory, the minimum wage should be made enforceable alongside the existing and fundamental right of seafarers to engage in collective bargaining. This would be entirely consistent with the United Nations Sustainability Goals (specifically #8) for which so many politicians and chief executives trumpet their support. With the current focus on corporate social responsibility this is the least we should expect.

There is much talk in maritime circles about what the future will look like as the fourth industrial revolution unfolds. It is high time that the human element – the seafarer – was the forethought and not constantly playing catchup. Only then will we all be able to create more and better jobs in a sustainable shipping industry.


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