The need for better seafarers pay is the lesson of the Suez bottleneck

Mark Dickinson, general secretary Nautilus International

On 26/27 2021 April, Mark Dickinson, Nautilus International’s general secretary will lead negotiations to improve the seafarers’ minimum wage. Here he sets out the case.

For six days at the end of March the world’s attention focussed on Suez, where the Ever Given had run aground. Quarter of a mile long and carrying 220,000 tonnes of cargo, the container ship  blocked the canal causing the most expensive traffic jam in human history.

It is what this episode reveals about the state of the world today that is really fascinating, however.

Our dependence on these floating behemoths is exposed in sharp relief, of course. Shipping transports 90 per cent of the goods we buy – the Egyptian canal is one of the critical arteries that fill our shops. Three days after Ever Given ran aground one of Britain’s biggest selling newspapers, warned that: “washing machines, car parts and toys… could be in short supply as cargo ships destined for Europe remain stuck in the jam.” 

You might imagine, however, after a year of pandemic, that world trade would be in the doldrums. Actually, the reverse is true. By the time Ever Given floated free, more than 200 ships had backed up at its entrances. Many more diverted and sailed around Africa rather than risking delay in the 150-year-old waterway.

Reflecting on the situation in Suez, World Trade Organisation director general Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala said: “The fact that the Ever Given was able to cause so much disruption is a sign that global merchandise trade is relatively robust — and that global supply chains have held up through the pandemic”.

She continued with a more specific prediction. “Trade recovered more quickly than expected in the second half of 2020. This rebound has continued, and the WTO’s baseline trade forecast foresees an 8% increase in the volume of world merchandise trade for 2021.”

She is not alone. The Economist predicts that: “Operators of ships ferrying containers, packed with consumer goods or components, are set fair for a banner year.” Maersk, the world’s biggest shipping line, predicts profits of $6bn-$7bn, up from a pre-pandemic estimate of $5.5bn. And the Baltic Dry Index, that tracks the cost of shipping raw materials, is close to its five year high.

While coverage of the Ever Given crisis focused on the potential consequences for consumers, the impact on seafarers went overlooked. And yet this group of workers – around 1.6 million worldwide – have been impacted by coronavirus much as have other keyworkers on the medical front line. 

International restrictions on the movement of people means that crew changes have not been able to take place. At the height of the global lockdown an estimated 400,000 seafarers from across the globe were stranded on ships, continuing to work but unable to take shore leave. Some have now been at sea for nearly two years, working every day for around 12 hours a day, without a break. Another 400,000 seafarers were stranded at home, unable to join ships and relieve crew. Often without financial support from their government, they are now facing serious financial hardship.

The disruptive ripples from Suez will impact these seafarers’ routines still further. There is a ray of hope in the lives of the seafarers who toil to feed and cloth us, however. They could soon get a pay rise.

Uniquely, seafarers are entitled to a minimum wage that applies worldwide. Usually negotiated every two years between trades unions and employers, the talks are convened by the International Labour Organisation in Geneva, Switzerland. 

The current minimum is $641 a month – a small sum for work that even in normal times can mean being away from home for up to nine months a year, and and with work patterns of over 90 hours a week. 

A delegation from the International Transport Workers’ Federation will be making the case for the seafarers, and I will lead that delegation. The case we have to present is compelling.

It is the seafarers’ adaptability and ingenuity that has allowed the industry to bounce back so impressively. They coped with the impact of ships acting as floating warehouses in the early months of the pandemic. And despite the unusual fatigue and stress of that period, when economic activity took off, seafarers ensured that the industry rose to the occasion.

As a result, the maritime economy is set for staggering profits this year. Respected analyst Lars Jensen predicts that the industry is going through a period of record profitability. Even those sectors of the industry that have been hardest hit, such as cruise lines, are reporting an astonishing bounce back.

There is more to this than shareholders and workers jostling for their share of the cake, however. Shipping logistics are increasingly complex. A digital revolution is underway. Cargo handlers are also increasingly required to be ever more responsive to quickly-changing consumer demand. Our industry also faces significant environmental challenges. All require a workforce that is sophisticated, motivated and well prepared. 

A step-change in pay is a vital prerequisite for seaborne logistics to thrive. With revenues buoyant, this is the moment for employers to show their commitment to those who make daily sacrifices on their behalf and whose initiative will be the foundation of future success.

Like so many human interactions at this time, our negotiations will take place over video link. No doubt that will bring its own challenges. Seafarers can, however, be assured that no one will mute their voice, and there will be no logging off until their demands are satisfied.

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