The IWT working time agreement celebrates ten years

15 Feb 2022

Ten years after signing the European social partner’s agreement (SPA) on working time for inland waterways together with the European Social Partners – the European Barge Union (EBU) and the European Skippers’ Organisation (ESO) – the European Transport Workers’ Federation (ETF) fully supports the European Commission’s recent urging all EU Member States (MS) to implement the Directive, regardless of the size of the inland water sector in their territory.

The ETF wholeheartedly welcomes this first significant shift in the European Commission’s stance on the SPA regulating the working time for inland waterways. Under Rome I regulation, their laws can apply to workers in the IWT sector – sometimes companies can even choose the law applicable ( e.g. crewing agencies). Still, we will continue to monitor this assessment closely, as it is paramount to have fair working conditions for our workers in place.

It took seven years of complex negotiations for the European Social Partners in Inland Waterways to reach an agreement. At that time, we were happy to have such a high level of workers’ protection laid down in the deal. A deal also offering a highly needed flexibility for the highly mobile crewmembers.

Yet, ten years later, we still hope to implement this agreement fully.

Although the agreement entered into force as a Directive in 2014, nine Member States (MS) have opted out for “geographical reasons,” pleading that they have little or no substantial waterway systems on their national territory.

At first glance, this would seem to be an acceptable argument. But not for the thousands of crewmembers recruited via crewing agencies situated in some of these MS, thus working under an employment contract governed by the national legislation of a Member State that has opted out on the directives’ implementation. This situation inevitably opens the door to abuse and uncertainty about which legislation is applicable.

Joris Kerkhofs, the ETF Inland Navigation Section President, considers: “the inland shipping is an international sector by definition. Rivers and canals do not stop at borders. That is why the ETF  strives for European and pan-European regulations in the social field in inland shipping. Ten years of working time regulation is indeed a moment to reflect on this cornerstone of an employee-friendly policy.

But the experience with this dossier also makes us realise that control and enforcement are as necessary and that implementing these justified regulations takes far too long.

For as long as the employees are left out in the cold, this remains unacceptable.”

Jacques Kerkhof, the President of the Sectoral Social Dialogue Committee for IWT, thinks that “five years of suing to get the Commission to come to sense and finally accept the need for a vigorous European control mechanism is desperately needed.

In Nick Bramley’s opinion – the ETF Inland Navigation Section President in 2012this shows that an agreement is only as good as its enforcement. If the “black sheep” of the industry can continue to find loopholes created by the Member States undermines the efforts of those who are willing to enforce the Directive and protect workers’ rights.

A particularly exposed group of crewmembers is those employed as hotel, restaurant and catering workers onboard by many river cruise vessels. Most work with a seasonal contract and have to re-negotiate their contract every year, although we have witnessed over the years how the season now stretches to almost 10 to 11 months. Many of these crewmembers work many more hours daily than the regulatory 14 hours a day, and their annual working time often exceeds that of many full-time workers.

On Wednesday, 15 February 2012, the European Transport Workers’ Federation (ETF) and its counterparts from the employers’ side European Barge Union (EBU) and European Skippers’ Organisation (ESO) signed the European social partner’s agreement (SPA) on working time for inland waterways.

The Working Time Directive for inland waterways was one of the significant jigsaw puzzle pieces and one of the cornerstones of the ETF IWT Sections’ strategic approach, together with the conclusion of the European manning regulation, decent Social Security coverage, harmonised professional qualifications and adequate controlling capacity.