Is it time for the maritime industry to seriously reconsider onboard representation?

Fellow maritime scholars Carolyn Graham and Ralph Buiser got together to contemplate how to address the day-to-day work concerns of seafarers. Their thoughts are carried below.

It is widely accepted among industry experts and maritime scholars that working conditions for seafarers around the world can be variable and substandard. In fact, that was one of the driving forces behind developing the Maritime Labour Convention 2006 – that is, to address the more sociological aspects of work that were not covered by the more technical maritime standards developed by the International Maritime Organization. However, research on the MLC so far, shows that on its own, it does not make for an effective means of regulating day-to-day life at sea if supports are not in place to ensure that its provisions are effectively implemented and practiced in the intended manner.

Time for unions onboard?

One important area of neglect pointed out by researchers and some commentators, is the lack of representation on board vessels. Historically, this representation has been provided by seafarers’ unions. Particularly in the more traditional maritime states where unions fought for and gained rights to have some input in ensuring the provision of proper on board working conditions. For example, there was the case of the UK where seafarers had worker representatives on board to help manage the day-to-day aspects of life at sea. They were on hand to hear seafarers’ complaints and present their interests to management towards securing amicable resolutions before the emergence of crises. However, with the movement towards emerging labour markets, the same type of involvement unions used to have in traditional maritime states is not reflected in today’s maritime work environment. Today, many issues are only addressed when they reach the crisis stage and seafarers grow desperate and draw attention to their plight via the media or welfare organisations. Does it have to be this way?

Quite a substantial body of research into dangerous land-based industries such as mining, construction and chemicals, shows how having workers representatives effectively supported by management, unions, a government inspectorate and regulations, help in improving working conditions. Like land-based labour, seafaring has experienced the negative effects of economic globalisation and neoliberal business practices which have led to a decline in union support and a race to the bottom in labour standards. Furthermore, ship owners tend to be reluctant to grant unions the right to be involved on board as one of us has discovered in examining the provisions for seafarers’ safety representation in the MLC. This is not surprising as it is often a given that employers prefer unitary approaches to managing businesses. Significantly however, the research evidence from land-based industries is clear that outcomes are better for workers and organisations when a more pluralist approach is taken.

While advocating representation, we are also mindful that shipping might be somewhat difficult to organise in the way that most land-based industries regulate and practice worker representation. Shipping is remote and mobile but also has features of small enterprises which have been found difficult to manage even in land-based situations. It is however not impossible, if the industry has the will to involve unions on board, especially as seafaring unions already represent workers at the collective bargaining level. Attempts by the maritime industry to have managers alone manage working conditions on board and in particular, health and safety, have not been very successful. What research exists, shows that the unilateral, top-down managerial strategies in practice, particularly under the International Safety Management Code (ISM), do not deliver the envisaged health and safety management practices and outcomes.

International consensus for union involvement?

It might therefore be time for the maritime industry to seriously reconsider representation o board despite obvious challenges and the difficulties that negotiating such a standard might entail. Among the areas of importance is the need for a shared vision of representation. Our separate research shows that this might be challenging, but the potential for positive results based on existing land-based studies, should outweigh such challenges. The challenge in question is the different national views on the subject and its practice. Based on our separate research, we found that unions in traditional maritime countries might have a different perspective in terms of their role in representing seafarers, from unions in some emerging labour markets. For example, unions in one traditional maritime state continue to seek representation rights for on board involvement. Such rights have to be negotiated with individual ship management companies or owners, which makes it difficult to represent all their members in their workplaces. However, whether or not they have on board representation, these unions encourage their members to report matters and the unions seek to address these at both the national and sectoral levels.

The opposite experience has been reported by some seafarers from a less traditional maritime state. Such seafarers lament the absence of unions from their on board experiences. They perceive their unions to be institutions that support elements of their social welfare but that are less involved with their day-to-day grievances at sea. A third engineer from a labour supply state in one of the studies said:

I don’t reach out to them[unions] because they are only going to tell me to deal with it, talk to my first engineer or make a formal complaint on-shore. So nothing gets done. They are only good for medical [benefits] and stuff like that.

While the MLC and ISM have complaints mechanisms, industry knowledge and some research evidence show that seafarers are reluctant to engage with such formal and often managerial systems. They perceive such systems as a way of apportioning blame, or they will be exposed for speaking out and their jobs, their career, or their reputations will be jeopardized. Fear of being blacklisted is a distinct reality for some seafarers.

Unions in some countries do approach their roles differently. One union official from a labour supply country was candid in explaining their position:

We want them to be employed. So we tell them to be professional, do their jobs, impress principals, not complain, and do the right thing…if principals think they are disrupting the efficiency onboard and always complaining this or that, then there is a big chance they won’t get employed again with them. We see it many times. It’s a business, and that’s the way it goes.

Indeed, varying perspectives were evident in the MLC negotiations as countries unsurprisingly attempted to promote their national interests. Such varying views can be a barrier to negotiating standards fit-for-purpose. While unions on board is undoubtedly a controversial topic, it might suit the industry to consider opening a discussion as to the possibilities of giving seafarers their own mechanism by which they can more confidently manage working conditions. Understanding the various national perspectives and seafarers’ perceptions can be helpful in directing such discussions. Such an understanding is necessary to arrive at a shared vision as to the need for on board representation and what this should look like.

With all the discussions and strategies developed to improve working conditions on board, representation remains the one least discussed at the international level. The limited provisions in the MLC have been shown to be not fully understood and effectively implemented in some instances. Perhaps then, it is time for the maritime industry to seriously re-consider representation or to at least begin a discussion regarding meaningfully incorporating seafarers’ views in the operation of the ship beyond domestic issues.


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