Shipping is the lifeblood of the global economy, carrying around 90% of everything we consume: the clothes we wear, the food we eat, the computers we rely on. The EU maritime transport sector employs around 230 000 people and European shipping accounts for over 40 % of the world’s fleet. The EU has some of the world’s largest maritime clusters. However, all the ships that carry those goods and passengers depend on seafarers, a group of transport workers who face rather unique conditions.
Shipping is the most globalised of all industries, and that brings a cost for the officers and ratings on merchant vessels. Seafarers are the first to suffer from the unchecked and unfair competition in the shipping industry, a persistent hire-and-fire culture, and the ups and downs of the global business cycle. The global nature of shipping also makes it difficult to enforce social rights for seafarers, while Flags of Convenience let employers dodge taxes and avoid rules that defend decent working conditions.
Seafaring is a difficult life, which often brings long working hours, harsh living conditions and social isolation. But what makes European seafarers especially angry is the fact that there are no restrictions on the nationality of maritime workers, such as we see for land-based jobs. This means that some shipowners avoid hiring European seafarers because they want to reduce labour costs. Indeed, it is possible to employ third country nationals in European services and pay them at the level of workers in developing countries– a clear case of social dumping.
The result is a lack of jobs for European seafarers. Although 40% of the world fleet is in the hands of European shipowners, fewer than 40% of crew positions on these European vessels are filled by European seafarers! Roles for European seafarers on non-European vessels are rare, and subject to lower wages and worse conditions.
Alongside this fundamental attack on European seafarers, there are many other threats to the number and quality of seafaring jobs.
The size of the crew on merchant vessels is decreasing, and this trend is bound to continue with the emergence of new technologies and the increasing digitalisation of the sector.
It is becoming more difficult to guarantee decent shore leave – an opportunity for seafarers to relax and recharge, or to seek help if they are being badly treated by their employer. Increased security measures make it difficult for seafarers to leave the ship, and the more rapid turnover of cargo means vessels spend less time in port.
Seafarers suffer a high occurrence of occupational deaths, injuries and illnesses when compared to land-based professions.
There is a growing trend to criminalise seafarers in case of maritime accidents, and seafarers are sometimes left stranded without legal support in the event of ship abandonment.
Despite these difficulties, shipping is still an advanced industry which provides remarkable career opportunities for the skilled individuals who are willing to work in this environment. The ETF is doing its utmost to improve the working lives of European seafarers and guarantee that they get the recognition, respect and decent conditions that they deserve.
The solutions to the maltreatment of seafarers lie in ensuring that the competitive climate is regulated and operators are encouraged to compete on quality and not on costs. ETF works to promote job security for national seafarers, and protect the maritime skills base and local knowledge clusters. We do this by advocating for high EU standards and a level playing field for all who want to trade in European waters. We will pursue every possible avenue to ensure the resilience of European shipping and maritime know-how, and ensure that quality and fair shipping is rewarded. That is how Europe can champion a race to the top on social, environmental and safety standards, for the benefit of the more than 272000 seafarers we represent.
A European maritime space without social dumping
At the ITF-OECD Summit on “Transport Connectivity for Regional Integration”, we discussed subsidies and non-European investment in the maritime and port industries. Subsidies are needed to protect Europe’s shipping sector from unfair competition, but they should be tied to the creation of jobs, decent conditions, training and the greening of the sector.
Developing a sectoral skills strategy for the maritime transport sector
An Italian judge has ordered the release of the captain of the Sea Watch 3, a migrant rescue ship who had been arrested for breaking an Italian naval blockade after saving the lives of 40 migrants in the Mediterranean. Her release is a victory for justice, but this humanitarian crisis cannot be tackled by NGOs or merchant ships alone. The EU and its Member States must work together to save lives and share the burden of dealing with this crisis.
Workers at the Dutch tug company continue their fight to get their overtime paid. Instead of working for free, they decided to do voluntary work in a different way: they got elderly people from a retirement home on board of boats and gave them a tour of the port!
A tug captain from Antwerp has issued an SOS call, asking for action against social dumping in the sector. His story highlights a specific case of unfair competition in Belgium, but it is a story that will echo with tug captains across Europe. The ETF is building a network of tug captains, and we will stand with them in their struggle to defend decent pay and conditions in this vital profession.