Inside the Issues

Cargo Handling by Seafarers

Introduction

*Cargo Handling by Seafarers, crates
*Photo: Steven Bruijneel, www.dockwork.be

Seafarers are increasingly being asked to stow or secure cargo but this is dangerous work that should only be done by trained and experienced dockers. Although there may be some extra cash for seafarers – tempting, as it boosts low pay – the larger incentives are often for the officers on-board who get the seafarers to handle the cargo. Seafarers are even being asked to start unlashing containers before entering port, with the aim of speeding up port operations, which is very dangerous. 

Is cargo-handling by seafarers really a problem?

There are great risks to safety at sea and to individual seafarers if untrained workers handle cargo – it’s a job for port workers not seafarers:

  • It’s dangerous unless you’re properly trained
  • It means longer working hours and more fatigue
  • It’s another way the operator makes money out of you

Port workers respect the skills of seafarers and their fellow workers and, in turn, ask that cargo-handling be left to the experts.

Why are seafarers asked to handle cargo?

Cargo-handling by seafarers is part of the wider deregulation and liberalisation of the maritime industry being pushed by many employers and the governments that support them. Their aim is to compete by lowering cost. They want to squeeze more from seafarers and dockers through ‘flexible’ working practices, longer working hours and/or less pay. In the process they undermine the protective regulations that workers have fought long and hard for.

They are trying to displace the trained, experienced and registered port workers. In some cases they take on casual, unregistered and inexperienced labour in the terminals. Or they get seafarers to do the job.

Employers are especially keen to weaken the trade unions of dockers. Organised dockers have the power, which they do use from time to time, to refuse to load or unload goods. They can bring to a halt the just-in-time supply chain that is vital to the production and distribution of goods around the world.

Dockers take such action to stand up for their own rights. But they also do it to support others, especially seafarers. In fact, the solidarity shown by port workers refusing to load or unload a vessel has often been critical in the struggle to win better working terms and conditions for the seafarers onboard. Dockers are seafarers’ natural allies.

Why is cargo-handling by seafarers bad for seafarers?

Cargo-handling is dangerous for seafarers because you are not trained for the work.
As well as deaths among seafarers, there have been accidents at sea among vessels made unsafe by badly lashed containers.

Cargo-handling also adds to the stress and fatigue that seafarers already suffer through long working hours, tight sailing schedules and fast turnaround times. It means even less rest time in port, when you hope to make contact with family and friends back home. Fatigue has also been highlighted as a major factor behind accidents in port and at sea.

On top of this, eroding the power of unionised dockers is not good for seafarers, because dockers often give you solidarity when you need it.

Why is cargo-handling by seafarers bad for dockers?

If you do the work, it takes jobs away from qualified dockers. Cargo-handling is work for professionals. It should only be done by those who have been specifically trained to do it, so that it is done in a safe and efficient way.

It is dangerous, too, for dockers when they have to unload cargo that has been loaded by untrained workers. It erodes the power of dockers' trade unions, your natural allies.

What if I am asked to handle cargo?

All ITF-approved collective agreements contain a clause that ships’ crews shall not be required or induced to carry out cargo-handling. So, if your ship is covered by such an agreement, any request for you to handle cargo violates that agreement.

If you are asked to touch cargo, say “No” and contact the ITF on +44 20 7403 2733 – your call will be treated in the strictest confidence – or use the link on the right to contact the nearest ITF Inspector or local maritime union representative.