Inside the Issues

Trade Unions


*Trade Unions
*Photo: Steven Bruijneel,

A trade union is an organisation of workers, formed to protect the rights and advance the interests of its members concerning wages, benefits and working conditions. 
A trade union is established by workers, made up of workers and designed to benefit workers.

Trade unions often bring together workers in a particular occupational group, for example seafarers.

A trade union should be:

  • Independent from the influence of government, companies or other agents
  • Democratic in its operation, so it gives members a vote and a say in how the union operates
  • Transparent, so union members can see how their union dues are spent

What does a trade union do?

Where a trade union is recognised by an employer it may engage in collective bargaining, that is to say negotiating with that employer for an agreement governing wages and working conditions. Some unions provide other services such as legal advice and representation for members. Where necessary, unions may organise strikes or other industrial action.

What are the benefits of joining a trade union?

  • Better protection from unfair treatment and victimisation
  • Increased job security
  • Better workplace health and safety
  • Better pay and conditions – trade union members generally have better pay and conditions than non-union workers
  • A say in decisions affecting your working conditions and rights
  • Strength in numbers – the more members a union has, the greater its chances of winning a better deal for workers
  • Education – many unions provide members with education opportunities

What should I expect from a trade union?

According to the ITF’s Code of Good Practice, seafarers’ trade unions should provide the following minimum services to their members:
  • A membership card
  • A union newsletter, journal or magazine
  • A contacts directory, including telephone numbers and names of union officials
  • Assistance with any valid claim arising under a collective agreement signed by the union, including wage dispute assistance, handling of personal illness/injury and loss of life claims, provided such claim is justified
Some unions provide additional services and benefits to seafarers and/or their dependants, such as:
  • Welfare and social needs   
  • Training and education assistance
  • Medical and/or dental care
In such cases, the ITF’s Code of Good Practice states that the union should ensure that all benefits and related payments are clearly explained to the members, that the funds are transparent and properly controlled and that the funds are audited annually by a duly qualified auditor.

What else do I need to know about joining a trade union?

Membership fees:
As a member of a trade union you should expect to pay membership fees. Fees vary from union to union. They may be payable on a weekly or a monthly basis.

Political activities:
Trade unions may engage in political work, such as lobbying or campaigns to promote legislation favourable to the interests of their members or workers in general, or supporting individual candidates or parties for public office.

Free and democratic:
A trade union should be free and independent of any employer and should be democratically run. Officials of the union should be democratically elected by the membership.

Some employers set up company unions in an attempt to deter seafarers from joining legitimate trade unions. In some countries governments will establish their own unions for similar reasons. These are sometimes known as ‘yellow unions’. Joining a yellow union, whether it is a company or state-sponsored union, offers very little genuine protection to workers.

All ITF affiliated trade unions must be free and democratic and must adhere to the principles laid down in the ITF’s Constitution. To view the Constitution or to join an ITF affiliated union, please use the links on the right of this page.

What if there is no ITF union in my country?

There are some countries where there are no ITF affiliated trade unions for seafarers, such as China.

In other countries where trade unions are illegal there may be no trade unions at all, such as the United Arab Emirates.

If there is no ITF affiliated union in your country, you can apply to become a member of the ITF directly, using the link on the right of this page.

If you are working on a ship that is covered by an ITF Collective Agreement, then you will automatically become a member of the ITF union that holds the agreement for the duration of the agreement.