Almost 90% of the world’s trade is dominated by the maritime industry and crewing the world’s roughly 52,000 ships are approximately 1,647,000 seafarers. Most of them work dizzyingly long hours, in dangerous conditions, and for far too many, in return for a pittance.
A seafaring career, for so many years, has been one of the most “neglected” careers in the world. The reason is simple, we are here sitting at our desks, while seafarers are out there in the middle of the ocean, braving waves and turbulent seas. Despite our dependence on their toil, it is surprising how little most people know of these maritime workers.
Most are required to put in a 90-hour week when they are at sea. Stopovers in port can often be just 24 hours – leaving scarcely any time to leave the ship. And for this, far too many receive the globally-agreed minimum wage of just £440 a month (USD 614, at the current exchange rate of £1=USD 1.40).
Many ship owners offer far better conditions than the worst, but even the best require longer hours, in hazardous conditions, and greater personal privations than almost any other line of work.
Although in most aspects of their lives seafarers are beyond the reach of domestic laws, they are covered by a global minimum wage agreement. This is negotiated under the aegis of the International Labour Organisation in Geneva and is based on a formula that seeks to maintain the purchasing power of an agreed minimum monthly basic wage for an AB originally set at £16 in 1947 (ILO Convention 76). The good news is that the rate of pay has been regularly reviewed and updated and over the decades has been increased but still only stands at £440 per month.
The better shipping lines pay better, it is true, but the global minimum is the peg from which everything starts. A rise in this basic rate, would benefit all seafarers.
The global minimum wage is based on a formula related to currency fluctuations and buying power in a number of countries that reflect the main ship owning and the countries of labour supply. When you consider what seafarers endure at work and the efficiencies that the merchant navy has achieved in recent years, as well as the importance of cargo carrying to the global community, it is clear that the time has come for a significant rise, whatever starting point is delivered by the ILO formula.
Independent evidence of falling costs and greater efficiency is plentiful. Maritime business consultants Moore Stephens, for example, undertake an annual survey that shows that operating costs are on a downward trajectory across all types of carrier. Richard Greiner, Moore Stephens shipping partner, says: “This is the fifth successive year-on-year reduction in overall ship operating costs”.
Localised studies reflect this. One by Maritime UK, for example, revealed that: “over five years, the British maritime sector experienced a 12.7% increase in turnover, 6.6% increase in gross value added and 3.9% increase in employment”.
There is no shortage of raw material when it comes to seafarers’ conditions. Theirs’ is the most physically dangerous, emotionally destructive, and socially-isolating occupation on earth. Many circle the globe in penury, as their wages are unpaid – the ITF routinely collects over £30 million a year in unpaid back wages. Port chaplains, describe the heart-breaking gratitude they experience when the give seafarers £10 phone sims, allowing them their first contact with home for weeks.
There’s a need for balance. If the profession is repeatedly hammered into the ground, it will struggle to attract a new generation. On the other hand, the problems cannot be hidden for fear of upsetting people. What most of the world does not realize is that the lifeblood of the global economy relies on these people who go out to sea, to transport goods and people to sustain the well-being and way of life of the rest of the world’s populace.
Viewed over a couple of decades, shipping has become significantly more efficient and the number of seafarers has tumbled. Operators now accept that staffing levels are as low as they can safely go with ordinary seafarers now doing demanding and complex jobs. The time has surely come to pass on some of these efficiency gains to these lower-paid workers on whose almost unseen toil we rely so heavily.
(References: Fair Pay At Sea, Maritime Executive, Ship Technology)