Wednesday, 16 October 2019

Why are third officers being paid less than coffee shop workers?


I recently came across a job advert for a third officer by one of the UK’s major maritime industry recruiters, Faststream Recruitment. The advert offers the successful candidate “the opportunity to work with a leading cruise company, experience global travel, and enjoy an attractive package with lots of future possibilities,” sounds great right?
In return, Faststream’s cruise ship operating client asks for “experience in this rank on any type of passenger vessel,” an “Officer of the watch CoC unlimited,” and “the legal right to live and work in the EU.” This all seemed perfectly reasonable to me, and a great opportunity for a junior officer, until I saw the salary.
“The client will offer the successful candidates up to $16,000 per year with a 4:2 rotation.”
$16,000. Let that sink in.
At today’s exchange rate that equates to a UK salary of £12,613. For a third officer. With experience in rank. For a leading cruise ship operator.
If you assume that the successful candidate will work around 12 hours per day for the eight months they are on board, that equates to around £4.33 per hour. The minimum wage in the UK for an 18-21 year old is £6.15 per hour. The minimum wage for an under 18 year old in the UK is £4.35 per hour.
So that we are crystal clear, a leading cruise operator is attempting to employ EU deck officers for less money than an employer in the UK can legally pay a child. When I saw this I assumed it was a typo and, through the magic of LinkedIn asked the team to verify.
Faststream’s recruitment manager told me: “The pay advised on the advert is correct. This position is working with a leading and very well established company – and with this opportunity they are offering an entry into the cruise industry”.
These officers are professionally qualified navigators and will be legally responsible for the safe navigation of a multimillion dollar asset and the lives of thousands of people. It takes a minimum of three years and a combination of practical training, academic study, and sea-going experience to obtain an unlimited Officer of the Watch Certificate of Competency. Even after all of the training, there is no guarantee that a cadet will obtain their officer’s ticket. In the UK, and across the EU, we maintain exceptionally high standards for the certification of seafarers and those who cannot prove their competence simply don’t get a license.
There is a great deal of skill and creative flair that goes into brewing good coffee. For the sake of reference, a leading coffee shop in the UK pays its entry level staff an average of £7.00 per hour. But the skills required and the level of responsibility involved in navigating a merchant ship versus making my morning macchiato cannot be compared. So how is it that the officers on board these particular ships are being paid less than my local barista? I’m no stranger to the employment economics of our global shipping industry, and that UK and European seafarers must compete in an international market. During my time at sea, I was lucky enough to sail with officers from all over the world; Russia, the Philippines, Ukraine, Indonesia, India, Poland, and Croatia to name a few. We always swapped stories about pay and conditions during long hours on the bridge. I never met any seafarer who bore the responsibility of stripes on their shoulders earning a wage as low as what’s on offer here.
Though morally questionable in my opinion, Faststream and their client are not doing anything illegal here. The salary on offer from this job comes in above the minimum wage of a number of EU countries, some of which have no lower pay limit. An irrelevant point, because EU minimum wages have no bearing on what happens at sea. But it also comes in just above the recommended $1,822 a month minimum wage for a third officer set by ITF, ISF and ILO as part of the Maritime Labour Convention. However, comparing what’s on offer here to the minimum international standards completely misses the point. When I think of the minimum standards set by MLC, I picture rusty bulk carriers operated by anonymous and unscrupulous owners who spend their days treading the thin line between costs and safety. I don’t picture cruise ships carrying thousands of unwitting passengers.
When all is said and done, this is a safety issue. When a leading cruise ship operator is willing to devalue critical skills by paying the officers stood on deck, who bear responsibility for the safety of passengers and crew, a paltry $16,000, it makes a mockery of all of the important work done by industry to improve safety at sea in recent decades. If any ship operator is willing to cut a corner this important‍‍‍, it makes you wonder where else they are cutting corners. Further, I wonder how safe the passengers on board would feel if they knew that the officers responsible for navigating their ship were paid less than the taxi or bus driver that took them to the airport?
Unfortunately, I have no doubt that the roles will be filled. Across Europe, there are enough qualified junior officers scrabbling for work that doesn’t exist to fill these roles many times over, even at this insulting salary. I believe wholeheartedly in free-market economics and that, above certain minimum standards, an employee’s salary should be determined by supply and demand. But in this case, I believe the cruise operator is shortsightedly sourcing officers well below the market rate. Sooner or later, markets always correct themselves. In our industry, those corrections tend to come after catastrophic events. It is a repeating pattern I’ve seen play out many times; a ship operator sources the cheapest possible labour, they struggle with crew retention and quality, near misses increase but go unreported, eventually, something happens; lives are lost, oil is spilled, or a ship founders.
I am lucky enough to often be asked to speak at events or privately brief clients on the future of the industry. A consistent question comes up wherever I go; how do we attract the next generation of talent and give them the skills to succeed? It’s a simple question and I believe it has a simple answer. Hire good people, train them well, and most importantly treat them well. You don’t need to pay people filmstar wages to retain them, but you do need to pay them a wage that reflects their skills and the gravity of the responsibility they hold. I hope for their own sake, and for the sake of the passengers and crew in their charge, that Faststream and their client realise the error of their ways before irreparable harm is done to the industry.

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