With about 90 percent of world trade passing through maritime transport and seafarers required to operate the ships, it is evident that seafarers play a pivotal role in international trade. However, since the beginning of the pandemic, seafarers have suffered from unfavorable conditions, such as being stranded at sea for several months due to the uncertainties about port access, which has a tremendous impact on their physical and mental health. They are working well beyond the end of their contracts, resulting in up to 400,000 seafarers who will remain trapped at sea. To make matters worse, illegal labor practices, including failing to get paid minimum wage, threaten their economic rights.
Negotiations over seafarers’ minimum wage increase break down
For decades, the minimum wage for seafarers has been set at the International Labor Organization’s Joint Maritime Commission, which was established in 1920 and consists of representatives of shipowners and seafarers. Talks to set a new global minimum wage for seafarers broke down last month. The International Transport Workers’ Federation(ITF), which represents the seafarers, asked for a $1.40 per day increase from the current $641 monthly minimum wage last set in 2018, whereas shipowners put forwards a deal to increase the basic minimum wage by 3% for seafarers across the world over 3 years. However, the seafarers’ unions didn’t accept the offer during two days of official talks at the International Labour Organization(ILO).
- “For only the second time in the long history of these negotiations, the shipowners and the seafarers have failed to agree a revised minimum wage for seafarers. And that’s wholly the fault of the shipowners, 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,” said Mark Dickinson, Seafarers Group Spokesperson at the ILO and Vice-Chair of the Seafarers’ Section of the ITF. Dickinson explained that shipowners were unwilling to raise minimum wages for a single dollar, which is likely to further push labor supply shortages.
Seafarers’ working hours and conditions
Seafarers work in an extremely strenuous environment under enormous stress, pressure, and fatigue. Indeed, sufficient rest is of great importance for the recovery of the seafarer and the operational safety of the ship. In this regard, the right to rest and reasonable working hours are regulated at the international level by various IMO and ILO Conventions. Moreover, flag states should ensure that seafarers’ working hours on ships comply with international standards. The flag state has to issue safe manning documents on board the ship, such as schedule of working arrangements for seafarers’ hours of work in compliance with the recommendations of the IMO/ILO guidelines and records demonstrating the actual working hours signed by each seafarer. The hours of duty of all seafarers should be eight hours per day from Monday to Friday. Nonetheless, the situation varies greatly from country to country. That is, the working hours and time to take a rest differ significantly depending on the ships’ flag and the type and the nationality of seafarers. For example, the Filipino contracts of employment specify eight working hours every twenty-four hours, midnight to midnight, and Monday to Saturday.
An infringement of seafarers’ right
Although the working hours are strictly regulated at all levels, the lack of a proper monitoring system infringes the international standards. Many seafarers reported that working hours have increased steadily in recent years and that they work longer hours than on a regular daily basis. The long working hours combined with the minimum manning, rapid turnarounds, bad weather, and traffic conditions result in a fewer opportunity to rest, increasing the risk of fatigue and accident at sea.
In a period of globalization, the labor market highly competitive and national intervention barely noticeable
The shipping industry is the only industry for which international bodies such as the ILO determine an international minimum wage, aimed at providing decent working conditions for all seafarers through an international safety network. The ILO minimum wage is updated periodically and is based on a specific formula taking into account the living costs, and currency fluctuations. The seafarers’ Wages, Hours of Work, and Manning of Shipping Recommendations implement the principle that the minimum wage for able seafarers should not go below the amount negotiated by the Joint Maritime Commission(JMC). In addition, the ILO adopted a resolution to include the calculation of overtime, compensation for leave, rest days, and holidays in the ILO minimum wage and to offer a recommended minimum salary.
Even though the ILO Recommendation on minimum wage is not obligatory, it manages to influence the minimum wage for many seafarers around the world. The seafarers are usually paid higher rates than the ILO minimum wage. However, because of the specific characteristics of the maritime industry, it is impossible to give updated detailed figures on wage conditions. Moreover, there are great differences and fluctuations between wages of seafarers coming from different nationalities and countries. Wage fluctuates substantially according to factors such as supply and demand for seafarers, country of origin of the ship, nationality of the shipowner, and the region of operation. Especially, there is a large gap between the bottom and top average earnings and a large variation among the average monthly earning of able-bodied seamen of different nationalities. For example, seafarers from Westen Europe, Australia, and Scandinavia were better paid than the ones coming from the Philippines, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Bulgaria, and Romania.
Wages should be paid monthly directly to seafarers or to their bank accounts. The usual practice is seafarers receive a small amount on board the ship and the rest is paid to their bank accounts as family allotments. In this regard, it is hard to find out whether the money is paid regularly because of communication restrictions with banks or families being on a ship in the middle of the ocean. Also, complaints of unpaid wages and allotments are on the top of the seafarers’ complaint list and are among the most common and serious abuses, accompanied by contract problems, inadequate living conditions, safety, and port authorities problems. The complaints frequently keep arising regarding lower payments, unpaid overtime, and family allotments, or unjustified deductions from the salary.
Breaching of the seafarers’ employment contracts is a common case
The maritime working environment is a high-risk working environment. The majority of seafarers worldwide are constantly exposed to a multitude of work-related diseases and accidents or injuries. Moreover, ships do not provide adequate protection to seafarers, at least not of the kind found on land. Statistics show that fatality rates for seamen are a lot higher than in other industries. To make matter worse, today’s seafarer works long hours in a small crew, insufficient to handle the workload.
Seafarers continue to be among the most vulnerable group of workers in the world. Many seafarers still work on dangerous and substandard vessels in terrible living conditions even with the pandemic weighing them down. Though there are thousands of well-run ships, where crews are treated fairly and work under good relations and in good conditions, most of the human values are still neglected and seafarers become victims of gross injustice without the help of the international communities and unions. Various ILO and IMO Conventions protecting the seafarers’ rights are ignored by flag states, Port States, shipowners, and crewing agencies. Therefore, the power of the ILO should be strengthened to improve the living and working conditions of many seafarers by negotiating and enforcing wages and employment agreements on many ships worldwide.