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Working on a ferry line where the job is regular and with acceptable pay and working/living conditions provides a good job, especially for seafarers who wish to work relatively locally, transporting passengers and cargo between ports in their own country or region.

What are the pros and cons of ferry work?

However, the ‘race to the bottom’ of the global free-market economy is being felt in the ferry sector too. With very few exceptions, ferry companies are now almost all privatised and those that do remain publicly owned are under pressure to follow suit. Employers are trying to squeeze more out of their workforce, and they are deliberately hiring seafarers from other countries and regions in order to undermine existing employment standards.

Ferry service employers in many parts of the world have been upping the pace, scheduling more trips between ports in the time available. They are demanding longer shifts and faster turn-arounds in port which mean less rest time between sailings.

Some ferry lines work seasonally, laying up vessels in winter or during the monsoon season. This leaves seafarers unsure if they will be called back next season, a source of great stress.

Newer ferry vessels usually have better crew accommodation. But there are also many older vessels working, especially those that operate seasonally. On them, seafarers’ comfort is barely considered.

What is a Flag of Convenience (FOC) ferry?

In some parts of the world, those employed on ferries are mostly nationals of that country or region. However, there are also ferries that fly ‘Flags of Convenience’ (FOC) – vessels that are deliberately registered in a country that takes little interest in maintaining good shipping standards. You can read more about FOCs using the link at the right of this page.

FOC ferry owners tend to compete on labour costs rather than quality of service. They recruit seafarers from poorer regions offering them lower wages and conditions than is standard practice in the country of employment. For example, Polish seafarers on the English Channel route between France and the UK may be paid only one quarter the standard wage of a French or British seafarer.

This downward pressure on employment standards, known as ‘social dumping’, jeopardises the opportunities for national seafarers to stay in the labour market. The ITF and its affiliated maritime trade unions also are concerned that it undermines seafarers’ skills base and therefore safety standards. Bad employment practices and lack of safety go hand-in-hand.

To find out if your vessel is flying a Flag of Convenience, please click on the Look up a Ship tool at the top or right of this page.

What is the ITF doing?

The ITF campaigns against treatment of seafarers that is based on nationality or country of residence. We seek to ensure equal rights for all to decent work.

That is why the ITF and our Finnish affiliate FSU have taken legal action as far as the European Court of Justice. The Viking Line, which operates between Finland and Estonia, wants to switch from a Finnish flag and crew to an Estonian flag and crew in order to lower the seafarers’ wages, terms and conditions. You can read more about the case using the links at the right of this page.

Our European regional body, the ETF, is also campaigning hard for an EU ‘Manning Directive’ to regulate working terms and conditions on intra-European ferry services. There is more information about this campaign on the right of this page.

What is cabotage?

The ITF believes that commercial operations between ports within a country, or within an economic grouping such as the European Union or Mercosur, should be reserved for vessels registered in those countries. This is known as ‘cabotage’.

Many countries (e.g. Greece, USA) have strong cabotage laws. Others (e.g. UK) do not. Cabotage laws are often attacked as against ‘free trade’. However, the ITF supports them as a valid method of eliminating unfair competition in what is, essentially, a domestic transport service.

In many countries where the national fleet has virtually disappeared, cabotage is the main, and sometimes the only serious option left for local seafarers to secure employment:

  • Cabotage provides national training possibilities, which can help seafarers to avoid reliance on the training policies of foreign owners and/or manning agents
  • Cabotage provides jobs for seafarers who, for various reasons (age, family, etc.), need to work closer to home
  • Cabotage retains an employment base that is not dependent on the whim of international shipping employers, who may decide to change crew nationality with little notice