Happy 70th IMO on World Maritime Day

We are raising a glass to the International Maritime Organisation this World Maritime Day to celebrate its 70th birthday, writes Mark Dickinson. And it provides an opportunity to reflect on the impulses that brought this venerable institution into being.

It is a child of the United Nations, of course, established to regulate maritime affairs in the years immediately after the Second World War. Its roots, however, stretch back to the Safety Of Life At Sea Convention (SOLAS), agreed by seafaring nations in 1914 in response to the Titanic disaster.

Both represent recognition that the sea, and the people who make their livelihoods upon it, face the same issues whether they are in the North Atlantic or the South China Sea. There are practical aspects to this – common standards in technical and regulatory matters are a pre-requisite for flourishing trade, for example.

But there is a moral dimension too. Realpolitik might have provided Churchill and Roosevelt with some of the motivation to initiate the United Nations. The idea of cooperation between the world’s governments gained its decisive momentum, however, from worldwide revulsion at the grotesque catastrophes of the Second World War. According equal respect and rights to people, wherever they live and work, seemed like the only appropriate act given the dark of the prevailing scene.

In the ensuing period the world has become dramatically more interconnected. We don’t raise an eye today at food grown in Africa, clothes sewn in Vietnam and fuel drawn from deep below Arabia. What they all have in common, of course, is that they arrived on our shores by sea, steered by the world’s 1.6 million seafarers.

They too are beneficiaries of seven decades of international cooperation that have brought effective regulation to countless areas of their working lives. Their base pay levels, however, are the responsibility of another of the United Nations progeny, the International Labour Organisation.

This November, I will be leading the biennial talks that will determine the minimum wage for seafarers. The very existence of this minima, and the mechanism by which it is maintained, is testimony to an enduring recognition that global issues deserve global solutions. I am bound to ask, however, whether the current level of the seafarers’ minimum wage is true to the post-war determination to build a better world?

The current global minimum for seafarers is $614 a month for a 48-hour working week. For this, most leave their families for nine months at a time and will scarcely step on land during that period — modern ships sail increasingly slowly to conserve fuel, and port visits are often less than 24 hours. They undertake tough work in what is statistically one of the world’s most dangerous occupations. Piracy is an enduring threat, as is being abandoned for long periods, unpaid, in a foreign port, should their employers run into financial difficulties.

Since the last minimum wage revision, in 2014, four fifths of seafarers have seen their spending power eroded, in some cases by more than 15%. One result of this is their families at home  face reduced living standards as remitted wages buy less, but feel duty bound to hide their problems from remote wage-earners during fleeting moments of telephone contact.

I hope that when I meet the employers, they will have rediscovered the high ideals and optimism that brought the IMO and the ILO into being. We are calling for a real rise in pay of not less than $50 a month as a first step in showing these vital workers how we value their contribution to global economic growth.

Happily, the shipowners find themselves with a beneficial backdrop for the rediscovery of high ideals. The International Monetary Fund – another child of the 1940s – is currently predicting that in 2018 and 2019 we will see “the broadest synchronised growth” since 2009. Global growth is predicted by others to be around 4%.

The director general of the World Trade Organisation, Roberto Azevêdo, told a press conference in April how he saw the next couple of years: “World merchandise trade volumes will grow nearly as fast in 2018 as they did in 2017, with growth of 4.4%. And we expect that growth will remain quite strong in 2019 at around 4.0%. It represents the best run of trade expansion since before the crisis, supporting economic growth, development and job creation around the world.”

As we remember, then, the optimism that propelled the IMO into life, this surely is the moment to encourage ship owners to do the same. “Fix the roof while the sun is shining” is not a particularly nautical aphorism, but that is the opportunity that the shipowners have before them this Autumn. By doing so, as I hope they will, they will demonstrate the endurance of instincts, honed in response to humanity’s greatest tragedies, as well as the institutions born in that era.

To find out more about the global minimum wage for seafarers and the upcoming negotiations please visit www.fairpayatsea.org

Mark Dickinson is the General Secretary of Nautilus International

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