State of your union

Union demonstration, Indonesia



How can seafarers’ trade unions best serve the interests of their members? This is the question being addressed by a special ITF development programme. Mark Davis, from the ITF’s Tokyo office, describes how the programme aims to make sure that trade unions from the main crew-supplying countries act as proper unions and are responsive to members’ needs.

The ITF Seafarer Union Development Programme (ISUDP) came into existence primarily to assist seafarers’ trade unions in crew-supply countries to deliver a minimum set of trade union services to their members. A trade union service really means what the seafarer can expect in return for paying union dues. This can include anything as simple as a union card or a newsletter to complex services such as making submissions on new maritime law or arguing a legal claim for negligence against an owner in case of personal injury.

The goal should always be 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. There are three main prerequisites in this regard.

For seafarers in some labour-supply countries a union that meets these 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 these factors as an achievable goal.

Through the ISUDP the ITF oversees a number of projects that have involved forming new seafarers’ unions. Unions in this position have to concentrate on recruiting members who will be interested in promoting the collective strength that a union will ultimately provide 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 they will receive a union card and contact details but 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; so any support given by Malaysian seafarers can be viewed as a solid future investment.

A large number of crew supply country unions were formed because of a coinciding 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, but where deficiencies in implementing the prerequisites or in delivering a satisfactory service to members is sustained over a long period then this should not be considered acceptable.

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 pursuit of contractual claims and should only be developed 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 and this is to be applauded. Where this is not happening, non-domiciled seafarers wherever possible should collectively encourage their unions to reform in ways that enfranchises all members equally irrespective of nationality or domicile.

Where seafarers find themselves paying union dues to more than one union it is necessary to ensure the unions are asked to clarify exactly what 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. To assist in addressing these issues seafarers could raise their level of awareness of how their union works and what it does for them.

If you are dissatisfied, you could take the issue up with the union as a group; encouraging it to involve you in its processes and from there seek reforms to give effect to the prerequisites outlined.