A European Maritime Space for Socially Sustainable Shipping: The Answer to Social Dumping in the Maritime Sector

16 Feb 2023

The concept of a European Maritime Space for Socially Sustainable Shipping, is the ETF’s Maritime Transport Section Vision for addressing Social Dumping and boosting employment for EU/EEA seafarers in an innovative way. After years of discussing “manning issues” (defined to include wages) with the European Commission and the shipowners, this concept puts our key priorities at the core of the Brussels debate again. We believe it takes the discussion forward and puts seafarers’ welfare at its core.

This concept is pointing out, the need for a complete reform if not complete eradication of the system of Flags of Convenience (FOC) – European shipowners, are allowed to operate in European waters with ships under FOC and to hire seafarers globally, mainly 3rd country nationals, on lesser terms than member state flagged vessels.  At the same time, these same shipowners benefit from and enjoy the privileges of EU legislative framework and State Aid, without having the responsibility to apply EU law and EU Social Standards for their workers.  European seafarers therefore end up competing directly with seafarers coming from countries with much lower employment terms and conditions. So, in this race to the bottom, we have working and living conditions and rights and payments, that are substandard compared to those specified by EU Law and/or EU based collective agreements which is a clear case of Social Dumping.

 There is an absolute need for the FOC to be completely reformed and Europe needs a race to the top, not to the bottom.  All crew, no matter their nationality or place of residence, working onboard vessels operating regularly in between European ports – no matter the flag the vessel flies – must be granted European terms and conditions. This should be achieved through negotiations between shipping companies and the seafarers’ unions from the countries at whose ports the vessels are calling and workers at sea should have the same rights at workers on shore, there is no defense for the less favorable treatment of seafarers.

The need for this equal treatment is being recognised more and more by different Governments. In Norway (minimum wage legislation in the Norwegian exclusive economic zone and on the Norwegian continental shelf), France and the UK (minimum wage corridors initiative that could soon include Ireland, Denmark and the Netherlands), legislators, both supported and pursued by ETF affiliates, are seeking to address this issue by drafting legally binding minimum standards for seafarers that link to each country’s legislation on wages. This is the fist step towards the ETF goal of a European Maritime Space and the levelling of the playing field among shipping companies and seafarers. There is a clear momentum now for action and we need to see the Commission and the industry set a level of ambition that has never been seen before to take social dumping and unfair competition out of the EU/EEA.  There is no obstacle to this unless it is an unwillingness.

At the ETF Fair Shipping Conference on the 5th of November 2019, Professor Tarjei Bekkedal from the Oslo University pointed out that the legal study about the possibilities of creating a European Maritime Space concluded that international regulations such as the Flag State principle should not be a hindrance to applying EU terms and conditions onboard ships operating between EU/EEA ports: “A ship operating in Europe cannot be seen as an island with third-country standards onboard. It is a myth that the Flag State principle cannot be challenged from a legal perspective.”

Europe urgently needs to come up with a European Maritime Space to protect its maritime jobs and maritime skills base, and to offer a solid foundation to build on for all the industry stakeholders. We genuinely think it’s time for Europe to get serious about enhancing seafarers’ living and working conditions and protecting its maritime jobs and maritime skills base!

The main aspects of the European Maritime Space concept:

  • All crew members, irrespective of their nationality or place of residence, working on board ships operating regularly between European ports, irrespective of the flag of the ship, must be granted European conditions.
  • Seafarers working in European waters must be treated in the same way as shore-based workers.

It is not acceptable that shipowners can benefit from State Aid without any social responsibility. It is imperative that the provision of State Aid is linked to socially sustainable actions. There is no other way of ensuring the safety of our seafarers unless we combat social dumping and unfair competition in Europe.

  • Companies benefiting from EU law also apply EU standards to their workers ashore and at sea.
  • Companies benefiting from EU state aid give back to the community and produce quality training and jobs.

To ensure implementation in practice, stricter monitoring and enforcement of the obligations are needed, by the European Commission through the State Aid Guidelines for Maritime Transport.

Shipowners, in turn for receiving state support, should have stronger obligations to seafarers. Mark Dickinson the Secretary General of Nautilus Int and the ETF spokesperson at the MT SSDC, underlined at the ETF Fair Shipping Conference (5 Nov ’19): “It is not complicated – they [shipowners] just have to grow their national maritime skills base i.e. increase the number of seafarers they train and employ and also increase the number of ships under EU flags. You would have thought that in return for hundreds of millions of euros, European shipowners would have made absolutely sure that they fulfilled those two goals? You’d be wrong, EU seafarers continue to decline in numbers and the proportion of EU ships flying EU flags is now down to only 18%.

The recent sacking without consultation of some 800 P&O Ferries seafarers isn’t just a UK problem, but has implications for the European Union.  After this shocking case, a seafarers Wages Bill is in progress in the UK and it should prevent a repeat of such a case and should prevent from “Fire and rehire” practices. A similar exercise is also in progress in France.

Some years ago, in the presentation of the ETF concept, Magda Kopczynska – Director for Waterborne Transport at DG Move of the European Commission stated that “the EU needs to find ways to protect its citizens and the values it is based onBusiness as usual is not an option anymore for shipping: social aspects need the attention they deserve.” She promised to further discuss the ETF’s concept of a European Maritime Space as a way to move the sector forward.

Bearing in mind the initiative by the Norwegian Government to promote fair and descent working conditions in Norwegian waters, the seafarers’ legislative initiatives in the UK and in France, and the possibilities that this can create for seafarers, now is the right time to push forward and build on this momentum to make some significant steps towards the creation of a European Maritime Space.

The link to the full text of the ETF European Maritime Space Concept is below: