New Fair Trade Movement: Raising Wages for International Ship Workers

Fair trade doesn’t always mean fair transport, unions say, as the International Labour Organization debates a minimum wage increase for the shipping industry. Better treatment of workers could also have environmental benefits, they argue.

Written by Alastair Bland Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
Workers on the container ship Christophe Colomb.Andia/UIG via Getty Images

The world’s mariners are protected by what may be the only minimum wage established across an entire global industry. Now, labor advocates are mobilizing to increase their pay and make consumers more aware of working conditions on the ships that move the goods they use every day.

More than 1.6 million seafarers work on international merchant ships around the world, according to the International Chamber of Shipping. Together, these laborers – mostly men from the Philippines, China, Indonesia, the Russian Federation and Ukraine – handle about 90 percent of global trade and also play a role in preventing marine pollution. But they’re a largely invisible workforce.

Nautilus International, a mariners’ labor union based in London, and the International Transport Workers’ Federation are calling for a $50 per month seafarers’ raise – an action to be discussed at a meeting of the United Nations International Labour Organization (ILO) in Geneva, Switzerland, scheduled originally for this summer and now moved to November.

“When times were bad, the seafarers did their bit,” said Debbie Cavaldoro, Nautilus International’s head of strategy. “Now that things are better, it’s time to not only pay them what they should have been receiving, but also an increase to move them forward.”

According to ILO data, basic rates for seafarers have been increased every few years since 1970. However, the unions say the current recommended basic rate is pitifully low – just $614 per month – and that a raise is overdue. With many workers on ships clocking more than 90 hours per week of heavy lifting and other tedious, dangerous labor, by payday it can come to as little as $2–$3 an hour, they note. But the shipping industry is likely to resist a wage increase.

In an email exchange, Peter Hinchliffe, secretary general of the International Chamber of Shipping, said he could not comment on whether shipping employees deserved more money for their work. He said he and his organization “hope for a good dialogue” with seafarer representatives at the upcoming discussions.

In a statement posted to its website, however, the London-based organization, which represents 80 percent of the world’s shipping fleet, questioned the rationale for the raise, arguing the economic challenges faced by the industry are “significant” and the minimum wage is “substantially higher” than that paid for comparative onshore work in developing nations. It also argued that seafarers are paid higher total wages once other mandatory payments, such as overtime or leave entitlements, are accounted for and end up with more than the ILO minimum.

Container ships remain anchored outside of the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach in California in 2012, during a labor dispute with onshore workers. Labor advocates for seafarers argue ship-based workers also deserve better pay and treatment. (David McNew/Getty Images)

In fact, the basic wage is just a recommendation. In an email, Brandt Wagner, an official with the ILO’s Sectoral Policies Department, said, “There may be some countries that have transformed the ILO recommendation into a binding national requirement, or it may also be made binding through other collective bargaining agreements.” However, his organization does not enforce such policies.

While most shipowners may pay more or less than the recommended basic wage, there are some that may delay or avoid paying employees at all, however. “You can still find seafarers on ships who have gone with no pay for six months, or eight months, or a year,” Cavaldoro said. In some cases, she noted, unscrupulous captains abandon their employees at remote ports without paying them, leaving the castaways with little means of getting back home – a human rights issue referred to as seafarer abandonment.

Working on a cargo ship can also be a dangerous job. A study published in 2014 in Occupational Medicine found that mariners were 21 times more likely to die on the job than the general United Kingdom workforce. The most frequent type of fatal accident was being struck by heavy mooring ropes and other objects. Falls onboard, falls overboard and “asphyxiation in enclosed spaces” caused other deaths, according to the analysis.

But enforcing international laws and treaties in an industry that involves dozens of nations, more than 50,000 ships and the entire ocean is an inherently difficult task for authorities in coastal nations. Pinning responsibility for the well-being of seafarers on the right person, even with their vessel identified, is also not a simple task, Cavaldoro said.

These are all reasons why the group is now exploring options to create a “fair transport” stamp that would identify products that had been carried across oceans on ships that provide safe and sanitary – and fairly compensated – working conditions for seafarers.

Modeled after the “fair trade” label for the food industry, used to inform consumers of farmworker treatment, Nautilus International sees consumer education as a way to motivate change. In fact, the idea came about after Nautilus and another seafarers’ advocate, the Swedish Union for Service and Communications Employees, or SEKO, discovered that “fair trade”-stamped products were being moved on ships that employed workers in squalid, unsanitary conditions.

“We believe that when people buy fair trade they’re buying a product that’s fair throughout the supply chain, but actually they aren’t,” Cavaldoro said. “The fair trade mark only guarantees the treatment of the farmers at one end. It doesn’t look at the life cycle of that product.”

A “fair transport” stamp may not appear on product labels for many years, she said, since creating one would be an extremely complex task. She hopes that higher wages, though, may be just months away.

Cavaldoro also argues there could be environmental benefits, if indirect, of paying seafarers higher wages and providing better working conditions. Underpaid or overworked workers, she said, may fail to take the extra steps that can prevent machinery breakdowns, system inefficiencies and various mishaps that can lead to oil or fuel spills.

“Seafarers care about the sea – it’s their workplace,” Cavaldoro said. “In the same way you don’t want litter strewn around your office, they don’t want polluted seas, they don’t want ships that leak fuel. In many ways, they’re the guardians of the sea, so value them and they’ll give back to the world by doing the best job they can.”

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