Seafarers’ “special status” continues to be used against them – it’s time to stop

26 Apr 2021

Since ancient times, shipping has been specially regulated. Consequently, seafarers have been viewed as a “special case”, and this label has long been used to justify their exclusion from modern legislation protecting workers’ rights in land-based sectors. While this was supposedly done in the name of protecting seafarers, it has, in reality, undermined their rights and protection. Seafarers are not second-class workers and should be covered by the EU legislation minimum standards applicable to all workers.

The fact that shipping companies often operate on a global level paved the way for adopting a specific international regulatory framework. The Maritime Labour Convention adopted at the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and other international conventions adopted at the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) stipulate international minimum standards for employment and working conditions, training, security and safety. The idea that international minimum standards in shipping suffice has led to excluding seafarers from numerous EU Directives. Recently, seafarers have been included in some EU social Directives[1], but they are still being denied the same rights as workers in land-based industries.

For instance, European seafarers are excluded from the Directive on Transparent and Predictable Working Conditions, a part of the European Pillar of Social Rights. Their inclusion would have a significant positive impact, as it would, among other things, grant them the right to be informed about their social security coverage. The unprecedented public health crisis due to COVID-19 has thrown the vulnerability of seafarers into sharp relief. Still, some EU member states fail to provide comprehensive social security protection to seafarers that would be at least equivalent to the one offered to shore-based workers.

Recently, the idea to exclude seafarers has shown up in the discussions at the EU level on the proposed Directive on adequate minimum wages. The proposal aims to improve the adequacy and coverage of minimum wages for workers, contributing to their decent standard of living and improving living and working conditions. Some Member States have argued that the existing protections of the Maritime Labour Convention 2006, as amended, are adequate. This argument is wrong and misleading and will prevent establishing a level playing field and the essential improvements of working conditions in the European Maritime Space. Seafarers’ exclusion could further worsen their already precarious situation and undermine the different minimum wage systems currently applied to seafarers in some Member States – whether through statutory laws and regulations or collective bargaining agreements. Such a move would further legitimise social dumping.

On working time for European seafarers, there is also a separate regulation that allows far more working hours to be legally acceptable at sea than on shore. The occurrence of occupational deaths, injuries and illnesses are far higher among seafarers than in land-based professions. Seafarers are currently clearly not adequately protected, with severe consequences to their physical and mental health. Mental health issues, stress, and fatigue are problems seafarers deal with regularly and have been exacerbated by the pandemic. The suspension of crew change and the prohibition of crews from disembarking at port terminals became and are still major concerns for humanitarian, safety and employment-related reasons.

A study from Oslo University[2] shows how EU shipping is treated differently from other economic sectors in Europe without any legal or moral justification. This study concludes that the only reason for the different treatment is due to a political choice: “There are (…) no legal obstacles to the introduction of a system that ensures fair working conditions within the European Maritime Space. (…) Neither are there practical hindrances to the inclusion of the provision of maritime services in the European Pillar of Social Rights. The difference that do exist seem rather to be the result of (a lack of) political will”.

The Covid-19 crisis has shown that maritime transport workers require special attention and has highlighted the complexity of a global industry with unfettered mobility of labour and capital. We’ve seen numerous cases of flag states not adequately assuming jurisdiction over the social matters concerning their ships.

The fundamentally mobile nature of seafarers’ work and the possibility for workers to fall between the cracks mean that not less protection, but more protection is needed.



[1] Directive 2015/1794/EU amended the scope of five EU labour law Directives by including seafarers in Directive 2008/94/EC on the protection of employees in the event of the insolvency of their employer, Directive 2009/38/EC and Directive 2002/14/EC on information and consultation of employees, Directive 98/59/EC on collective redundancies, and Directive 2001/23/EC on safeguarding employees’ rights in the event of transfers of undertakings, businesses or parts of undertakings or businesses

[2] Fair wage and working conditions within the European Maritime Space, Professor Finn Arnesen and Professor Tarjei Bekkedal, Scandinavian Institute of Maritime Law, Centre for European Law, University of Oslo, October 2019