Due respect

Workers Rights



Mark Davis reports on a scheme to help unions in some of the main crew-supplying countries provide a better service to their members

Any seafarer is entitled to expect three prerequisites of the union receiving his or her dues – that it is independent, democratic and transparent in its dealings. Beyond this a whole spectrum of services is possible, from a union card or newsletter to submissions on new maritime law, or arguing a legal claim for negligence against an owner in the case of personal injury.

However unions vary greatly in the services they can offer, and for seafarers in some labour-supply countries a union that meets the three prerequisites is a fantasy. It is all too easy for seafarers to set their standards too low or to become disillusioned and lose sight of basic principles.

A large number of unions in the crew-supply countries were formed because of a coinciding and relatively recent global demand for seafarers of that nationality. This can mean that they are at an early stage of their evolution in comparison with more traditional maritime countries, such as those in Western Europe.

It can be forgivable for a time if these unions fall short in applying the prerequisites. However where deficiencies in implementing the prerequisites or in delivering a satisfactory service to members is sustained over a long period, then this is unacceptable.

The ITF Seafarer Union Development Programme (ISUDP) exists primarily to assist seafarers’ trade unions in crew-supply countries to deliver a minimum standard of services to their members.

The goal of the programme in each case is the highest achievable level of service, bearing in mind the stage of evolution of the union, the legal framework in the home country of the union, and whether the seafarer is a national of the union’s home country.
Through the ISUDP the ITF oversees a number of projects that have involved forming new seafarers’ unions. These unions have to concentrate on recruiting members who are interested in promoting the collective strength that a union will ultimately provide for them.

This is the situation with the Malaysian Seafarers’ Union (MSU). Malaysian seafarers are being encouraged to join the union and to pay a modest subscription, in return for which they receive a union card and contact details. It is made clear to them not to expect a high level of representation until such time as the union has recruited sufficient members and received sufficient dues to allow it the financial freedom to focus on providing services.

The MSU is operating independently, democratically and transparently, thereby fulfilling the three prerequisites. Thus any support given by Malaysian seafarers can be viewed as a solid future investment.

Often a concentration on welfare services disguises shortfalls in representational services. While welfare services are of considerable value to seafarers and their families, these benefits of membership should be secondary to core union services such as the pursuit of contractual claims. The programme encourages the development of such services only once the representational machinery is in place and working effectively.

Similarly, where seafarers are members of a foreign-based union, they are often excluded from the union’s democratic processes and in some respects disadvantaged in the level of services they receive. There are moves in some countries to integrate non-domiciled seafarers more fully into union structures and processes. Where this is not happening, non-domiciled seafarers wherever possible should collectively encourage their unions to reform in ways that enfranchise all members equally, irrespective of nationality or domicile.

Where seafarers find themselves paying union dues to more than one union, the unions should be asked to clarify exactly which services seafarers should expect from which union, and what degree of involvement they can have in the unions’ democratic processes.

The ITF is seeking to address the issues raised here but requires the support of its affiliated maritime unions as well as seafarers throughout the world in order to succeed. Seafarers need to raise their level of awareness of how their union works and what it does for them. Unions can support this process, by welcoming all approaches from members and actively encouraging the participation of more seafarers in their work.

Mark Davis heads the ITF-funded International Seafarers’ Union Development Project based in New Zealand.