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Page context: Home > Topics > Life at Sea > Seafarers and Their Lives > 2005: Russian seafarers
Roald Alyakrinsky shares his hopes of a better future for Russian seafarers
A couple of years ago I was standing on the docks of our most northerly port, Dudinka, next to two ships moored alongside each other. Over one of them fluttered the Cypriot flag, and over the other the Russian flag. I knew that Russian seafarers were working on board both ships, which belonged to the Murmansk Shipping Company.
I had discovered from a visit to the Cypriot-flagged ship that the wages of its crew were in accordance with ITF benchmarks – an able seaman received 1300 US dollars a month.
On the other ship, things were different. I got into a conversation with an able seaman on board who represented the Seafarers’ Union of Russia (SUR). This seafarer had four professions—able seaman, motor-mechanic, turner, and gas welder—and he put his knowledge of all of them to full use on board the ship.
“So how much do they pay you?” I enquired.
“Five and a half thousand roubles (US$183) a month when the ship is in Murmansk (its home port) and 10,000 (US$333) when it’s on a voyage.”
He added that food and clothing were expensive in the Polar regions, and that it was difficult for him to provide for his family: his wife, who earned much less than him, and his two school-age daughters.
“So why don’t you get a job on the Cypriot-flagged ship?” I asked. “With your qualifications, they’d probably be glad to hire you.”
He shrugged his shoulders and said candidly: “What if the master or the chief engineer doesn’t like me? Or they decide to replace me with someone they know—most likely, in exchange for a bribe? There have been many such cases. I don’t want to stay here without a job.”
Some time later, on board the same ship, I put the same question to the navigator, an older man. He replied that he didn’t want to “work under a foreign flag”, because “you don’t earn a pension” there.
A fairer deal
Leaving the ship, I walked past two harbour cranes, which were painstakingly loading onto ships precious metals that had been mined not far from Dudinka, and wondered why it was that people were earning so little under the flag of one of the richest countries in the world in terms of mineral resources.
The world’s press often features reports of how seafarers from the countries that emerged from the break-up of the Soviet Union have been living in poverty. Crews from those countries have frequently been abandoned by their shipowners in far-off ports and forced to rely on Christian missions and the kind-hearted residents of port cities for their survival.
Two years have passed since my arctic voyage to Dudinka. We are still living between the Soviet past and what we are promised will be “a civilised capitalist future”.
Capitalism is flourishing in our country – but not a civilised capitalism, rather one that appears grasping, uncouth, and wild. In harmony with this process, unscrupulous shipowners are continuing to cheat the seafarers and fishermen of our region.
And yet there is some positive movement. Murmansk seafarers working on board Russian-flagged ships for example, have received pay rises bringing them up to US$500 per month, and the SUR reports to be at the point of bringing their pay up to the level recommended by the Joint Maritime Commission of the ILO.
Slowly but surely, seafarers’ salaries are rising—not just in Russia, but also in other countries of the region. And thanks to the implementation of an ITF-sponsored regional programme for the development of seafarers’ welfare (see box), the conditions of their stays in port have also improved.
Revitalising the industry
Russian shipping companies have begun to acquire more ships since the lumpsum tax levies and customs duties on ships bought abroad were slightly lowered (from 26.2 per cent to 24.2 per cent). Four new tankers have been commissioned for Georgia. In the Ukraine, the new Danube–Black Sea canal is up and running and, between 27 August and 8 November 2004 alone, 136 Ukrainian, Russian, Georgian, Turkish, Azerbaijani and Korean ships had passed through it.
The Azerbaijani national shipping company Kaspar is acquiring the “sea–river”-class ships that it needs from the famous Russian shipbuilding yard Sormovo, on the Volga. Azerbaijan remains the only country in the region whose ships sail under the national flag.
Russia has for a long time already been trying to find a way to bring back under its flag the numerous ships that have been transferred to offshore registers in order for shipowners to enjoy what they see as commercial advantages. The means chosen for replacing foreign flags with the Russian flag was the adoption of a Law on the Russian International Register.
But will this register improve the fortunes of the crews working under it? Seafarers have good reason to fear not, since the bill’s authors openly state that a major factor in “second register” ships becoming competitive will be the reduced cost of their crews.
Seafarers need strong trade unions to protect them from the abuses of grasping shipowners. There are some deep-rooted problems to overcome, of reluctance and uncertainty among seafarers towards union membership (see article on page 20).
However there are signs of consolidation in the maritime trade union movement, including a recent merger of two Russian trade unions representing seafarers – New Russia and the SUR – which may hopefully provide the basis for stronger and more comprehensive representation for Russian seafarers.
Two years ago, while leaving Dudinka and bidding farewell to the seafarers, I looked down from the high bank of the Yenisei onto the expanse of water in front of me, and recalled that the land and shelf of the Siberian Arctic, according to the scientists’ calculations, contain at least 30 per cent of the world’s reserves of oil and gas.
“One day,” I thought, “these waters will be ploughed by hundreds of ships from all over the world, coming to load up with locally mined raw materials.”
My hope is that Russian seafarers will begin to get their share of any prosperity that is coming.
Roald Alyakrinsky is vice president of the International Confederation of Water Transport Workers’ Unions, chairman of the Association of Maritime Cultural Centres of Russia and secretary of the Russian Council for Seafarers’ Welfare.
Major improvements to port facilities
A five-year programme for the development of seafarers’ welfare in the CIS and Baltic states has entered its final year in 2005. The programme was adopted by a regional seminar of the International Committee for Seafarers’ Welfare in Novorossiysk in 1999, and launched in 2000. It is administered by the regionally focused International Confederation of Water Transport Workers’ Unions (ICWTWU), and funded by the ITF Seafarers’ Trust.
In the course of the programme’s implementation, seafarers’ welfare centres have been built or rebuilt in:
All the region’s maritime clubs are equipped with vehicles, computers, telephones, and sports and other equipment.
- Baku (Azerbaijan)
- Poti (Georgia)
- Ventspils and Liepaja (Latvia)
- Murmansk, Novorossiysk, Nakhodka and Tuapse (Russia)
- Mariupol, Kherson, Berdyansk, Belgorod-Dnestrovsky, Odessa, Ilyichevsk and Izmail (Ukraine)
The clubs’ staff have received training in English, IT and management.
Georgia has ratified ILO Convention 163 “On seafarers’ welfare at sea and in port”, and tripartite national committees for seafarers’ welfare have been set up in Georgia, Russia and Lithuania.
There have been exchange visits between welfare centres in Yalta (the Ukraine) and Stockholm (Sweden), Odessa (the Ukraine) and Liverpool (the UK), and Tuapse (Russia) and Venice (Italy).
The progress of the programme’s implementation is being discussed at great length at meetings of the regional committee, which is composed mostly of leaders of seafarers’ unions affiliated to the ITF.
In 2002, such meetings were held in Odessa, Ukraine and Moscow, Russia, in 2003—in Tbilisi (Georgia), Ventspils and Riga (Latvia), and in 2004—in Baku (Azerbaijan) and Tallinn (Estonia).
Barriers to union membership are being broken down
Union awareness is growing among Russian seafarers and fishermen, says Petr Osichansky
In Russia, both seafarers and fishermen take a utilitarian attitude to trade unions: they only remember them when they are in dire straits. That’s how it was a couple of years ago on the Rybak Chukotki for example, when the crew of that enormous factory ship, which was undergoing repairs in Pusan, had received no wages for nearly a year. So the fishermen approached the ITF office in Vladivostok and joined the union, in order to get assistance.
he union helped them, and wages of nearly US$500,000 were paid to them – except for the master, who decided not to join the union. As for the union’s new members, they disappeared onto the open sea and will only reappear the next time they are not paid their wages.
It was the same story with the fishermen from the Rekin and Khaiduk, who had had problems two years running with the payment of their wages – after appealing to the union, they received their money, and promptly forgot all about the union. The crews of many other ships have likewise approached unions for help, got what they were owed, but for the most part failed to retain their union membership.
Roots of reluctance
So why do seafarers and fishermen avoid joining a union?
There are at least two explanations for this phenomenon. Firstly, the small shipping companies, which make extensive use of flags of convenience, avoid hiring union members. There is an unspoken prohibition on joining a union. And given the high level of unemployment, seafarers are forced to choose between a union and having at least some sort of pay.
Only a few of them are capable of such a feat as keeping their union membership secret. Their wages are normally not high – US$300–400 per month. But they can top them up by doing additional jobs, such as lashing and unlashing cargo, cleaning out the holds and loading and unloading cars, and by bringing in from Japan spare parts for cars; this enables them to earn up to US$800 a month.
The second reason why seafarers do not want to join a union is psychological. In Soviet times, if a seafarer had a problem, all he had to do was complain to the union and it would unfailingly be resolved—usually to the benefit of the worker. Obviously, this was down not so much to the union as to the Party Committee, which everyone was afraid of. In those days, the Party was everything. This state of affairs fostered a culture of social dependence among seafarers and fishermen.
In today’s conditions, however, it takes more than just complaining to the union. You need to take actions yourself—like going on strike, and initiating legal proceedings against the employer. The outcome will not always be to the benefit of the seafarers. But even if a ruling is made in their favour, it’s not always possible to implement it. In other words, seafarers could spend years trying to recover their wages and end up with nothing. This is something that they are not used to. Most of them, therefore, are not yet ready to create a strong and independent union, and this kind of temporary union membership suits them just fine.
And yet more and more seafarers – many of them, encouragingly, officers and even masters – are calling in at the ITF office in Vladivostok before boarding their ships, asking how they can become members of the ITF. Many of the seafarers still remember the help they were given by the ITF when Adriatic Tankers and Millennium went bankrupt. They realise how important it is for them to have employment contracts and, even more importantly, a collective agreement. Slowly but surely, union awareness amongst Russian seafarers and fishermen is growing.
Petr Osichansky is an ITF Inspector in Vladivostok.
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