Wednesday, May 5, 2021

No Progress as Talks on Seafarers Wages Increase Break Down When Policy Change Demanded

Maritime Workers Feel Resentment After Commitment Shown During Pandemic
Shipping News Feature

WORLDWIDE – Talks on setting a new minimum wage for seafarers around the world broke down last week at the International Labour Organization (ILO), after seafarers' unions made the decision to shut down pay discussions calling it a 'slap in the face', when ship owners representatives demanded that the industry ditch the established practice of using objective ILO minimum wage calculations before they would approve any pay rise.

The seafarers’ unions involved said they would prefer to tackle the shipping companies ‘head-on’ to set wages unilaterally rather than risk decades of established ILO practices by agreeing to employers’ demands to ditch objective ILO minimum wage calculations. The ILO Minimum Wage for Seafarers is a long-established mechanism to prevent seafarers worldwide from being exploited. It ensures that wages are tied to inflation, so purchasing power is not diluted over time.

The minimum wage for seafarers will increase to US$683 per month with effect from 1st January 2022. This represents a US$1.40 per day rise on the current rate of US$641, which was set following discussions at the ILO in 2018.

Meanwhile there is widespread resentment amongst crews at a time when international shipping rates are at all-time highs and, according to the seafarers’ unions, most shipowners have performed well financially during the Covid-19 pandemic, even as seafarers themselves have battled with exhaustion and overwork during the crew change crisis.

Nautilus General Secretary Mark Dickinson, who acts as Seafarers Group spokesperson at the ILO and Vice-Chair of the Seafarers' Section of the International Transport Workers' Federation (ITF), squarely lays the blame for the breakdown of talks with the ship owners side, saying:

“For only the second time in the long history of these negotiations the ship owners and the seafarers have failed to agree a revised minimum wage for seafarers. That's wholly the fault of the ship owners, who have behaved with such an astounding lack of self-awareness and a lack of respect for the sacrifices of seafarers, especially these past 14 months.

“Seafarers are heroes of the pandemic. They have sacrificed time and again. They have literally risked their lives so that these companies could survive Covid-19 and its economic effects. And now the thanks they get is a slap in the face from the ship owners who are essentially making them choose between pay cuts now or pay cuts later. It's disgraceful.

“By initially holding to ransom any kind of pay rise, even a dollar, to their plan to blow up the ILO formula, the ship owners expose their long-term strategy to undermine the social dialogue that has been so critical to the success and stability of this industry for years, and in doing so threaten the cooperation that we've seen throughout the global pandemic.”

Dickinson further emphasised that research from the International Transport Workers' Federation (ITF) shows a quarter of seafarers are considering quitting the industry due to the ongoing crew change crisis, and another 23% of seafarers were unsure about their future, suggesting a seafarer supply crunch was looming. Pushing wage cuts now or in the future would therefore represent a 'total own goal' for ship owners. Companies were increasingly sharing their private concerns about labour supply to union officials behind closed doors, he revealed. Dickinson continued:

“Sadly, the result of the ship owners' pay freeze is a pay cut in real terms, accelerating an industry labour shortage. It's hard enough for these companies to recruit seafarers with the crew change issue, I would have thought now would be the time to be investing in your people and making this an industry more attractive to join, not less.

“We've heard time and time again from ship owners and their representatives that they care about the seafarers, that seafarers are ‘vital’, and ‘critical’ to our industry and the global supply chain. But the moment it comes to recognise the contribution of seafarers and value them practically, by respecting institutions most fundamental to seafarers' welfare and delivering a modest real wage increase, the ship owners show their true colours.

“Unlike the ship owners we will respect and keep faith with the ILO formula, which is fair and objective. We maintain that the revised ILO minimum wage for an able seafarer is a minimum of US$683 per month from the first of January 2022 and we will advise our affiliates and the ILO Governing Body accordingly.

”We are now preparing to engage robustly with industry stakeholders and wider society to promulgate our views. We will use the extensive networks and media profile established during the crew change crisis to support our campaign for pay fairness for seafarers. ”Our door remains open for further talks should common sense prevail.”

The failure to agree a rate means that the ITF will now unilaterally determine the ILO minimum wage rate. The International Chamber of Shipping (ICS), representing the ship owners side during the talks, also expressed their disappointment of the breakdown of talks saying that despite the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on the global industry, ship owners put forward a three-year deal to increase the basic minimum wage for seafarers to provide a level of security for seafarers at this worrying time.

The offer represented a 3% increase for seafarers across the world at a time when many workers on land are having pay freezes and losing their jobs. Natalie Shaw, Director Employment Affairs at the International Chamber of Shipping commented:

“Unfortunately the seafarers’ representatives rejected a generous offer from the ship owners in these unprecedented times. We went further than we had anticipated but the offer was still rejected. However, our door is always open.”

The ICS says that the seafarers’ unions did not accept the offer, which according to the ILO process would mean that able seafarers will now not be entitled to a rise in the minimum wage for 2 years. The ship owners say they remain open to discussing the minimum wage with the unions in an effort to seek an early resolution.