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Why aren't seafarers on strike?

Updated June 30, 2020 (11:29)

Somewhere between 150,000 and 400,000 seafarers are stuck on board. The massively differing estimates reflect the absence of reliable statistics (indeed, there are claims these numbers are inflated). Even in the Philippines, where seafaring is a key industry accounting for almost 10% of GDP, there are only estimates as to how many qualified men and women are available to be deployed.

One thing is certain, however: those stuck today are having a bad time. An IMO webinar, timed to mark June's day of the seafarer, heard of the plight of those refused the chance to disembark and return home, in defiance of basic rights.

Tiredness and stress are the least of it. Seafarers have been denied access to lifesaving medical treatment, webinar participants heard. There have been suicides, though many go unreported. Despite an uptick in mainstream media interest, much of what happens on board takes place in a netherworld; in the west at least, seafarers are spirit-like creatures who come and go unseen and unheard.

So why don't they strike? The International Transport Workers' Federation has been lobbying flag states, port states and international bodies for months. Agreements designed to solve the problem have been brokered and then ignored by inflexible administrations. Hundreds of seafarers are writing to their unions "every day" with tales of woe, ITF general secretary Stephen Cotton told the webinar.

Industrial action would trigger food and energy shortages. Even the threat of action could trigger panic buying. So why not show the world just how essential seafarers are?

Using the written Q&A function, the Maritime Watch asked Mr Cotton for an explanation. His answer was honest: industrial action is on the table, he said, but membership is divided. Some officers' unions want to escalate the struggle using all means available. But the overall ITF aim, at least for the moment, remains to get seafarers home and to their their vessels without disrupting the supply chain.

"It's the first time ever in my life in the ITF [that] the ITF has been encouraged to do more industrial action," Mr Cotton said. "And we are looking at our options". It is however better to work collaboratively than "grind an industry to a halt when everybody needs the economic support that shipping provides".

Part of the reluctance to strike might derive from a weak bargaining hand. Filipino seafarers, for example, see their profession as a vital channel to US dollars. Many ratings are their family's sole breadwinner. The Manila branch of Stella Maris, the global maritime charity, is already supporting 750 families with emergency food aid. Can these seafarers afford to strike?

This weak hand has come about by design. Go back to the Europe of the 1970s are you will find many stories of seafaring unions demanding, and obtaining, better pay and conditions for crews. Union-friendly legislation of the time in some cases required double-manning: for every seafarer on duty, another was at rest. Unions had their employers over a barrel; they were unafraid to drive carriers to the brink of insolvency if their demands were not met.

Historians will decide if the unions overplayed their hand. Was flagging out and the rise of the international register triggered by their intransigence? Whatever the cause, flagging out broke union power in Europe and allowed owners to bring in non-Europeans, ramping up productivity and profits.

Unions at the time were often based on the nationality of the flag. Crews today have never been more diverse. Industrial action on a global basis would require coordination made difficult by the lack of a common language and poor internet access.

Maritime unions have never been weaker, the secretary general of the European Transport Workers' Federation admitted to me in 2015. After breaking their power at sea, European governments set about breaking their power on the quayside, a process that the European Commission recently concluded with the help of the European Court of Justice.

Is the wheel of fortune now turning again? Like frontline carers or warehouse workers, perhaps seafarers will leverage the virus into newfound bargaining power.

This is the ninth in a series of Maritime Watch crisis editorials. If you want them straight to your email inbox, sign up for the alerts at the top of the homepage.

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© EU Official Journal

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