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Women seafarers

It's still rare to find women workers at sea but, largely thanks to trade unions, more women are confronting prejudice and becoming valuable members of ships' crew.


Why are low numbers of women at sea a problem?

Women make up only an estimated 2% of the world's maritime workforce. Women seafarers work mainly in the cruise and ferries sector, often for Flags of Convenience (FOC) vessels. These are among the worst paid and least protected of jobs at sea. Women also tend to be younger, and fewer are officers than their male crew mates.

Their low number means that women can be subject to discrimination and harassment. The maritime unions are alert to these dangers and strive to protect the interests of women members – who now number about 23,000 worldwide.
What sorts of discrimination do women seafarers face?
Women can face discrimination even getting into seafaring work. In some countries, for example, maritime education and training institutions are not allowed to recruit women to nautical courses. Women tend to enrol on navigation rather than engineering courses. Even once trained, they may have to face prejudice from ship owners who won't employ women.

Once employed, women seafarers may also face lower pay even though they are doing work equivalent to that of male colleagues. Women may also be denied the facilities or equipment available to male workers, which is a form of discrimination.

These are all areas that are concerns of maritime trade unions.

If you are a woman seafarer facing such discrimination, contact your trade union for support and advice.

How should I tackle bullying or harassment?

Bullying and harassment are problems for male and female seafarers alike. Such unacceptable behaviour may come from colleagues or managers, and are known causes of ill health. Although these are issues for many workers, they can be a particular problem if you are employed at sea, where you are isolated from family and friends and other sources of support.

ITF has produced guidelines on dealing with these problems, which can be viewed using the link on the right of this page.

Women seafarers may also have to deal with sexual harassment or even abuse while at sea. Many maritime unions now have policies covering sexual harassment.

You should consult your union for advice if you want to discuss an immediate problem.

What maternity rights do women seafarers have?

If you become pregnant and wish to take maternity leave, your rights will differ, depending on where you work:

  • If you are sailing under the flag of your own country, you will be covered by that country's legislation, and any rights guaranteed under your union's collective bargaining agreements
  • If you work on a Flag of Convenience vessel, you will be covered by the legislation of that flag state – which might not give any maternity rights at all. However, ITF-approved agreements do guarantee minimum rights

ITF-approved agreements for merchant vessels stipulate that pregnant seafarers:

  • Must be repatriated at the cost of the company
  • Must receive two months' full pay in compensation

The timing of the repatriation may vary depending on where you work and your stage of pregnancy. Where the ship is trading coastally, or where a doctor is on board, it is generally safer for pregnant women to work later into a pregnancy - in Britain, up to 28 weeks. However, if working on deep sea vessels or very high speed craft, the risks need to be assessed carefully.

Pregnancy should never be treated as a disciplinary offence. Pregnancy testing before you are employed may violate International Labour Organisation (ILO) Convention 183.

If you are concerned about these issues, please consult your union.

What is the ITF doing for women seafarers?

The ITF is calling on employers, the ILO and trade unions to prioritise the following issues that have been identified as vitally important for women seafarers:

  • Reducing gender stereotypes within the industry
  • Provision of sanitary items on board ships
  • Access to confidential medical advice and the contraceptive and morning-after pill
  • Consistent and improved approach to maternity benefits and rights
  • Development of sexual harassment polices and appropriate training, including within cadet training and education

Further information for women seafarers is available using the link on the right of this page.