Few people know the modern realities of life at sea better than the Norwegian academic Gunnar Lamvik. He has interviewed scores of seafarers to compile a rigorously-researched picture of their motivations and working lives. In doing so, he has documented the hardships of life at sea – separation from loved ones, physical danger, and infrequent shore leave. For most of those who work at sea, however, these privations are bearable because of the benefit provided their families left at home, he found.
In their conversations with Lamvik, many seafarers described their working lives as being akin to being in prison. Voyages are getter longer, shore leave shorter and the disorienting effects of rarely setting foot on dry land, more pronounced.
In the past four years, however, seafarers have had another burden to shoulder – falling wages.
Uniquely, those who earn their living at sea are subject to a global minimum wage, negotiated every two years between the ship owners and the International Transport Workers’ Federation. The talks are conducted under the aegis of the International Labour Organisation. The global minimum is currently $614 a month – or $20 a day.
Two years ago the ship owners arrived at the negotiating table with a raft of bleak predictions for our industry. They used these to justify refusing a modest pay increase.
Unsurprisingly, the four-year-old minimum has fallen woefully behind. Seafarers in 47 countries have seen the purchasing power of their wages fall – in the case of 19 countries the drop has been by more than 10%, in some countries it has been by as much as 15%.
For four fifths of those currently serving at sea, inflation and exchange rate variations mean that the value of the minimum wage in their home countries has dropped.
The shipowners’ case two years ago rested on the state of the world economy and the consequent challenges facing the shipping industry. It is instructive to check against their indices and see just how wrong they were.
Earlier this year the IMF lifted its global growth forecast for 2018 and 2019 from 3.7% to 3.9%. It called this the ‘broadest synchronised growth since 2009?’
The IMF’s optimism is echoed by most mainstream economists.
Here is PWC’s assessment for the world economy in 2018. “Global economic growth on track to be the fastest since 2011: In our main scenario, we project the global economy will grow by almost 4% in purchasing power parity (PPP) terms, its fastest since 2011, adding an extra $5 trillion to global output in current value terms. More importantly, we expect growth to be broad based and synchronised, rather than dependent on a few countries.”
Unsurprisingly strong GDP growth has its roots in a healthy global trade position. According to the World Trade Organisation, trade growth in 2017 was ‘very strong’ – merchandise trade grew by 4.7%. In the same year, developed economies’ exports and imports grew 3.5% and 3.1%, respectively, while developing countries recorded export growth of 5.7% and import growth of 7.2%.
The focus of this year’ Day Of The Seafarer is seafarers’ wellbeing, particularly mental well being. Guy Platten from the UK Chamber of Shipping makes a strong and timely case for the industry paying greater attention to the mental well-being of its workforce. If those warm words are to actually benefit a single seafarer, however, it is vital to recognise that poverty and the feeling of powerlessness are among the most prevalent causes of mental health problems.
Paying seafarers at a rate that recognises how their spending power has decreased over the past four years won’t eliminate mental health issues among the workforce – but it will make a significant and positive difference. Showing those tens of thousands of workers the effectiveness of their democratic voice, exercised through their unions, would also benefit their mental well-being.
Among the most depressing findings in Gunnar Lamvik’s research is the effect that improved communications have on the way that seafarers interact with their families. Everyone welcomes the increasing availability of the internet and mobile phone connections for those who spend months away from their families, of course.
Lamvik found, however, that many seafarers ask their loved ones to shield them from bad news or difficult circumstances at home. Among these, of course, is the impact of the declining purchasing power of wages remitted home.
A raise of $50 a month would do a great deal to address declining purchasing power and encourage the return of loving honesty when seafarers to manage to speak with loved once. Let the legacy of this Day of the Seafarer be the resolve of the shipowners to show true decency and compassion when negotiations resume in November.