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A shipyard worker stands in front of a ship unloading containers at a dock
Getty/Monty Rakusen

Minimum wage boost for seafarers should inspire other workers

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General secretary of Nautilus International Mark Dickinson on the Fair Pay at Sea campaign to increase the global minimum wage for ships’ crews

‘Globalisation’ challenges labour organisation. Capital flees to low-wage territories, skilled labour migrates to developed economies, and perishable goods daily arrive in markets thousands of miles from their place or origin.

All have the potential to damage workers’ conditions, but our increasing interconnectedness also challenges trades unionists to internationalise some of our own practices.

My vantage point is slightly unusual. I am the general secretary of Nautilus International, a union that organises in three distinct jurisdictions: the UK, the Netherlands and Switzerland.

And this weekend (they start on Sunday 18 November), I will lead negotiations at the International Labour Organisation on behalf of global seafarers. It is my intention to win for them an increase in the only global minimum wage – that paid to ships’ crews.

As well as being the foot soldiers of globalisation, there is much that is unique about seafarers. They are a globally recruited workforce, the Philippines, Russia, China and Ukraine being the largest groups supplying the 1.6 million crew for the world’s 52,000 merchant ships.

Aspects of their labour conditions have been internationally regulated for a century (the Titanic disaster was the spur for the IMO Safety of Life at Sea Convention). Seafarers also work in conditions that are almost certainly tougher than almost any other group of industrial workers – dangerous, isolated and leading highly disrupted family lives.

But their biannual wage round is also evidence of how a global minimum wage can work. The International Labour Organisation convenes a meeting between ship owners and unions every other year. At these, negotiators consider a report on seafarers spending power prepared by the ILO’s secretariat. It is a complex business, with the formula using statistics from groups of seafarers from more than 40 countries.

The current minimum is $614 a month, which equates to around $2.96 an hour.

Of course, lots of seafarers earn a great deal more than the minimum. There are specific agreements, some of them covering multiple employers, that give their crews pay that is significantly above the minimum. Even in these cases, however, the minimum acts as a vital baseline for pay.

And while none on the union side believe that the minimum is anything like enough, it has risen consistently over the decades in line with prices and currency movements. Compare that to the minimum wage in the United States, for example. It has gone for periods of up to 20 years without an upward revision.

One reason for this lies in the fundamental difference between the seafarers’ minimum wage and most of the nationally proscribed minima. The former is the result of social dialogue between unions and employers, where the interested parties go toe to toe to thrash out a deal. National minimum wages are, in many cases, settled by politicians often without the formal involvement of either side of industry. As you would expect, workers do better where they are represented by unions.

I’m not suggesting that minimum wages are necessarily the best route for every group of workers, but a more international view brings multiple benefits.

There are also valuable lessons to be learned beyond our own shores. It is a depressing feature of nation states that they concentrate attention inside national borders. Even within Europe there are radical differences between the ways that unions organise, yet we all have the potential to provide valuable examples for others – as do labour movement campaigns from beyond traditional union organisation.

The Fight For $15 movement is an obvious example. What started among a few hundred fast-food workers in New York has grown in six years to cover 300 cities on six continents – and it has a significantly younger profile that most unions. There are lessons for us all in their success – but it requires a willingness to look beyond purely national parameters.

I am optimistic about the negotiations that we are about to start. The background ILO formula that forms the basis for our talks, shows that the great majority of seafarers have lost out over the past two years. Our industry also has a fundamentally promising economic backdrop.

If we are successful, when we rise from the ILO’s negotiating table, then many of the world’s 1.6 million seafarers will enjoy immediate benefits. That is quite a prize.

Our efforts would be all the more worthwhile if they generated just a little attention within in the global labour movement. Solutions born at sea don’t always successful transition to dry land, but I can think of plenty of groups of workers who would be a great deal better off if their basic wages had risen as consistently as those paid to ship’s crews.

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