Improving employee relations onboard ships

Dr Carolyn Graham from the Caribbean Maritime University on a more collaborative approach to making life at sea better.

A major problem with the shipping industry and handling issues affecting seafarers is that the practice of employee relations is poor. Shipping has changed much from the brutal history that continues to underpin how seafarers are treated to a large extent, and this needs to catch up with modern ways of treating workers.

Like the proverbial silver lining, the pandemic has brought some positives and given the industry some opportunities to change things for the better. The recent announcement that the UK Chamber of Shipping and Nautilus International have worked together to lobby the UK Government for an amendment to its new Nationality and Borders Bill, which would have seen UK seafarers being criminalized for humanitarian assistance at sea, is welcoming.

This victory has me again revisiting comments I made in the context of the pandemic and otherwise, regarding the need for the shipping industry to take seafarers’ involvement in their own protection, by way of union organising, seriously. Giving workers a say is an important aspect of good employee relations and it does not have to be adversarial.

We know that the pandemic has exacerbated existing safety and health concerns for seafarers and more so, that the international response has been inadequate to bring relief. Urgent matters of repatriation, excessive working hours, abandonment, shore leave, crew change, mental health concerns and medical emergencies, which are issues that have always plagued seafarers, have been severely exacerbated. We also know that the regulatory regime is constrained in addressing these urgent concerns. Governments are relied on to honour the commitments made in the ratification of the international instruments to safeguard seafarers’ welfare. However, their responses to the pandemic have been unilateral and fickle rather than being a coordinated and sustained effort to bring relief to seafarers.

One important element that I have been raising is that seafarers are not adequately empowered to act in their own defence. Seafarers do not have adequate representation onboard for their welfare issues, as union support in their countries might be weak, and even where this might exist, it is not readily available at the shipboard level. Countries with any type of employee relations structure rely on employers to cooperate with unions to be recognised for shipboard involvement and this is at a minimum.

As we know, the two main instruments for safety and health management are the International Safety Management Code (ISM) and the Maritime Labour Convention 2006 (MLC). In normal times, these two instruments have been weighed in the balance and found wanting, as they fail to offer adequate protection to seafarers. The pandemic has shown that if these instruments are to be more effectively applied, better coordination and cooperation is needed among all stakeholders, as well as more enabling provisions for seafarers to become meaningfully involved in their own protection. The MLC and the ISM lack specific mandatory standards for seafarers to discontinue work that is dangerous and are weak in their provisions for collective action at the shipboard level.

Although this is easier said than done, provisions for seafarers to take action would do well to signal to the seafaring work force that the international shipping community is cognisant of the importance of empowering them to act in their own protection as the pandemic has shown that existing mechanisms are unreliable. Such a provision might have assisted seafarers to take a stronger position as a collective – even if their countries do not have such structures – in alleviating their severe working conditions to some extent, during this pandemic. It would draw the necessary attention ashore that can be effective in motivating governments to act.

Such provisions for seafarers to act, would also be well supported by stronger standards for safety representation on board. The MLC standards for safety and health representatives is fashioned from land-based approaches and remains underdeveloped and merely symbolic in many instances. The ISM in turn, takes an individual approach to representation rather than a collective one.

Current research is showing how representatives have been able to support workplaces, ensuring businesses remain open while protecting workers safety and health during the pandemic. Safety representatives have been able to monitor and report on workplace conditions providing valuable data for policy makers. They have reported on assisting workers with mental health concerns and other psycho-social workplace issues such as bullying. They have assisted in coordinating safety and health response measures and supporting workplace safety and health committees in managing the pandemic.

While representatives on ships might not have had much influence over whether or not governments open their borders to seafarers, they could have played an important role in helping to coordinate shipboard responses and act as important sources of information and contact points between the ship and shore-based authorities. These activities would have also been more effective if supported by unions and appropriate regulatory provisions. Safety representatives would be the direct voices of seafarers in any collaborative action to alleviate the stresses at sea.

The history of employee relations tells the story of more conflictual rather than collaborative relationships between employers and workers. The pandemic has highlighted that this does not have to be the case and collaboration is needed in the interest of all parties. Collaboration among shipowners, unions and welfare organisations has been important in lobbying governments to put measures in place to address the pandemic’s impact on seafarers. However, this collaboration seems to end at the gangway. The pandemic has clearly shown the need for such collaboration to be a normal part of shipping operations at all times and is the foundation of good employee relations.

This is the basis on which the MLC in particular was developed. This experience with Covid-19 should therefore be used to develop more resilient standards going forward. The pandemic continues and preparations should be made to address this and future crises of this nature which can only be done collaboratively. The time is right for the shipping industry to acknowledge the important role of seafarers and their unions and make the necessary adjustments in the regulatory provisions to support their involvement and build good employee relations.


  1. This is a well-written and thoughtful article on the issue of Seafarers rights and Collective action. Unfortunately the Flag of Convenience (FOC) system was intentionally set-up so there would be no “Genuine Link’ between the actual owners of the FOC ships and the Flag that they fly ie: Panama, Liberia etc. This along with sourcing crews from all over the world often from less developed Nations where workers are glad to accept lower pay than those Seafarers from advanced economies, and are afraid of bein Black-Listed by the Shipping Lines and their Agents, Leads to a workforce that is very difficult to Orgainize to fight back on their own behalf..

    Yes, The MLC is a good instrument when enforced and we in the international transport workers Federation ( ITF) do our to help Seafarers with wages, hours and working conditions. But along with avoiding Taxes and Environmental Laws one of the main reasons the shipowners choose to fly FOC Flags is to avoid Rel Rank-n-File driven Seafarers Unions.

    Also, the Seafarers themselves are difficult to organize to strike or take Direct Action in their own interests, and instead hope that the ITF, the MLC or Benevolent Shipowners will take care of them. The Crew change Crisis as a result of Covid-19 and now the subsequent lack of Shore Leave for Seafarers, have like the article states shined a light on the abuse and neglect these forgotten workers are subjected to.

    I have spent 40 years as first a seafarer and now an ITF Inspector in the Maritime industry and know first-hand that nothing will substitute for genuine Trade Unions led and Organized by the Seafarers themselves in order to make meaningful gains. This cannot be brought about from well-meaning outsiders but from the Seafarers themselves will need to initiate their own Organizing. We at the ITF are here to help. I’m glad to see this discussion being brought up. Thanks …..In Solidarity, Jeff Engels ITF Coordinator West Coast USA

    1. I quite agree: “Also, the Seafarers themselves are difficult to organize to strike or take Direct Action in their own interests, and instead hope that the ITF, the MLC or Benevolent Shipowners will take care of them.” Even the basic rights some might not know. Although very few, when I was doing my PhD, I was told by some that they knew noting about the MLC but would find out if needed. Sometimes I think seafarers could be more proactive, although one can understand their fears etc.

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