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
In addition to an event on seafarers’ employment organised by ETF affiliates, we will be involved in a number of other events together with the European Community Shipowners’ Associations (ECSA). We will be presenting results from joint projects and upcoming activities, as well as offer a better insight into the perspective of seafarers in terms of skills needs, digitalization, and equal opportunities.
Obtaining a valid visa to go on shore, is an important aspect of seafarers’ wellbeing. Shore leave is a right for every seafarer and after spending many nights onboard it is paramount for maintaining good health. When ships are in ports, seafarers should, therefore, be able to easily leave the ship regardless of their nationality. Existing procedures within the EU however often impede on time granting of visas to seafarers. This has a major impact on their mental health and wellbeing. ETF, therefore, calls on EU Member States to ensure the implementation of the Code is adequately applied to seafarers.
On 14 January, the European Commission launched First phase consultation of Social Partners on a possible action addressing the challenges related to fair minimum wages. While the ETF strongly believes that workers of Europe need a pay rise, we don’t support simplistic approaches and half-baked solutions that could endanger the autonomy of social partners around the continent. A simple prescriptive mechanism cannot solve wage stagnation – instead, we need to address the core causes of it, such as precarious work, anti-union measures, digitalisation, and austerity.