17 May 2021
‘A slap in the face’
London. UK. The ILO has again called on governments to treat seafarers as key workers at the Special Tripartite Committee of the Maritime Labour Convention (MLC, 2006) in April, but the issue of seafarer minimum wages embarrassingly remains unresolved.
Two Resolutions were passed at the meeting which brought together more than 100 governments, seafarers and shipowners. One Resolution concerning the implementation and practical application of the MLC, 2006 during the COVID-19 pandemic renews calls for States to treat seafarers as key workers. States are called upon to ensure seafarers do not stay onboard for longer than the maximum period of service stipulated by the MLC, 2006.
A second Resolution calls on governments to make vaccines available for seafarers on ships visiting ports in their territories. Speaking for shipowners at the meeting, Dr Max Johns said that the resolutions were, “clear statements of ambition to get seafarers vaccinated at the earliest opportunity, which is the only way to secure an unhindered global supply of goods, not least food and medicine.” Shipowners, he added, expect that “the MLC, 2006 and all of its conditions apply under all circumstances.”
Minimum wage challenges
Nonetheless, there was one disappointing outcome from the tripartite April meeting. Prior to the meeting, the ILO hailed: “It’s 75 years since the first minimum monthly wage for seafarers was set – the only sector with an international minimum wage.” This is set against internationally accepted daily working conditions of 8 hours per day, 48 hours per week (equating to 208 hours per month).
On 28 April, the International Chamber of Shipping (ICS) issued a press release where Natalie Shaw, Director Employment Affairs at the International Chamber of Shipping said, “Unfortunately the seafarers’ representatives rejected a generous offer from the shipowners in these unprecedented times. We went further than we had anticipated but the offer was still rejected. However, our door is always open.”
“The seafarers’ unions did not accept the offer made during two days of official talks at the ILO, 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. Shipowners remain open to discussing the minimum wage with the unions in an effort to seek an early resolution.”
The union response from Nautilus International stated that the ICS position was a ‘slap in the face‘ for seafarers highlighting that “the proposed US$1.40 per day pay rise from the rate agreed in 2018 represents less than the price of a cup of coffee.” This is impossible to disagree with when set against the $millions and $billions being made annually in profit by individual companies.
On this occasion, no agreement could be reached on how the minimum wage could be set.
Despite the breakdown in negotiations, both sides have since made it known publicly that their “door is open.” This failure in April nonetheless ‘kicks the can’ down the road, variously buying more time to find leverage but yet again failing the seafarers and their families.
Shortly after, and speaking at the opening of the Maritime Safety Committee (MSC 103) on 5 May, IMO Secretary-General Kitack Lim again called on all Member States to designate seafarers as key workers. “So far, we have received only 58 relevant notifications, marking about a third of our membership.” This stark fact exposes the continued lack of unity of effort at the IMO with Member States choosing political interests over the very workers that keep them there at first instance.
On 6 May, a Human Rights Due Diligence Tool for cargo owners and charterers was issued by the UN Global Compact, the UN Human Rights Office, the ILO and the IMO. The UN agencies hope that the new guidance will ensure that seafarers have their human rights safeguarded in areas such as physical and mental health, access to family life and freedom of movement.
Nonetheless, there is no way of enforcing the tool. It remains voluntary, as are the 2011 UN Guiding Principles upon which it is based thereby leaving the door open for a continued lack of unity, accountability and enforcement in-sector.
Meantime, the Seafarers International Relief Fund (SIRF) was rapidly established in early May aiming to raise £1 million in response to the desperate needs of Indian seafarers and their families as a result of the global pandemic.
The Fund is being coordinated by the Seafarers’ Charity and has wide support across the industry. This could be the start of something much-needed in the collective welfare approach quietly challenging the sporadic unity of effort with far-reaching consequences if it is sustainably supported long-term.
The totality of these ILO, industry and welfare initiatives are to be rightly applauded. Together, they represent yet another marker laid down for the solidarity and support to seafarers and their families during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Nonetheless, the lack of international agreement highlights that despite the considerable efforts of organisations in championing seafarers’ rights backed by $millions in annual funding, a more effective and accountable international effort is needed to secure decent wages globally. Meanwhile, the reality of a multi-$trillion industry in respecting and upholding the rights of only 1.6 million seafarers remains unacceptably unbalanced.
Focusing on the MLC, 2006 and the applicable fundamental human rights set out in the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1948 is simply not enough protection for seafarers, nor is the reliance on charity. The right to just and favourable remuneration and the right to a standard of living adequate for health and well-being are as important as the right to rest and leisure, the right to freedom of movement, the right of family life, freedom from deprivation of liberty and the ending conditions of forced labour on vessels, by way of example.
If achieved, an internationally-applied minimum wage increase would be another important marker laid down for seafarers and their families, and one that will provide a level playing field for all involved thereby strengthening the tradition of 75 years of tripartite social dialogue.