You are here

Mark Dickinson: Steering seafarers’ pay to a new high-water mark

Steering seafarers’ pay to a new high-water mark
Mark Dickinson 20 December 2018

[Editor’s note: on behalf of the International Federation of Transport Workers, Mark Dickinson was lead negotiator for the seafarers at November’s minimum wage negotiations at the ILO].

Conducting the world’s biggest pay negotiation is some responsibility. But that was our task as we entered the International Labour Organisation’s (ILO) Geneva headquarters last month. We were there to represent the seafarers in talks to settle their new minimum wage.

Crewing the world’s 52,000 ships, these 1.6 million merchant sailors are the only group of workers covered by a global minimum wage. At the outset of talks, however, they had not had a raise for four and a half years.

It is a credit to our industry that there has been a minimum since the early 1970s – less progressive, though, is its level, just US$614 a month. For this, many seafarers work a 90-hour week, are away from home for nearly a year at a time and undertake one of the most dangerous jobs on earth. Many seafarers earn more than the minimum wage, of course, but the minimum provides the floor for the entire industry.

It took two days, but we thrashed out a deal. The minimum wage for an able seafarer will increase by US$27 over the next three years. The wages will provide an overall increase of 4.5 per cent on the current rate, with an increase of US$4 a month as of 1 July 2019, followed by an increase of US$7 as of 1 January 2020 and a final increase of US$16 as of 1 January 2021.

The format of these negotiations is unique. The Joint Maritime Commission brings together employers and unions under the wing of the ILO. A complex formula is used to determine how seafarers’ wages have performed since the last negotiations. A paper setting out this calculation is prepared by the ILO’s secretariat before the talks commence.

The formula’s purpose is to show how the comparative purchasing power of seafarers has changed since the last talks. With seafarers drawn from 55 separate nations, there is a lot of data to crunch. Most have their own currencies, so fluctuations against the US dollar is one factor. The other is the movement of prices in each country.

Added to this, the union side also highlighted reports from respected global economic authorities that project growth in the world trade on which shipping depends.

No doubt anticipating an effective case being made for the workers, the employers opened their argument in a dramatic style. Their position was that for the first time in its history, the seafarers’ minimum wage should be reduced to US$587 a month. It might have been a gambit born of a fundamentally weak case, but it characterised a highly combative position.

Employers and workers started poles apart, and as we argued our case, I was initially doubtful that we would reach any accord. The journey to agreement was tortuous, and the institution of the ILO deserves much of the credit for ensuring that we maintained momentum. Now in its 100th year, this august body has been promoting decent work and justice for workers with a guile and tenacity that is unique. Its history and traditions weigh heavy in that building, and I believe that those factors focussed minds in a way that led us towards an accommodation.

It was a more complex settlement than has been the case previously. There will be three separate pay rises and we have agreed to return to talks to discuss the effectiveness of the formula itself. These commitments represent an important marker for the future. The seafarers’ side is determined to keep up pressure on the shipowners – not just because we believe that workers should be paid more, but because high skills and higher wages offer our industry a better future than the alternative.

It is quite a thought – that so many families will have a little bit more money on which to live as a result of our work. More than anything, however, turning over in my mind the world-wide impact of these talks simply fires me up with even greater determination to do better next time.