Unions at your service?




What do you expect to receive in return for your US$10 per month or whatever union dues? Or if you don’t have access to a union, what service would you like to be receiving? A union card and three newsletters a year? Or do you want help from the union to sort out unpaid wages, or an unsafe workplace, or to advise you on the cost and process for obtaining an STCW-95 certificate?

These are the kinds of questions you will encounter if you get handed a questionnaire compiled by the ITF’s International Seafarers’ Union Development Programme (ISUDP) while on board ship this year. If you do receive one, please fill it in. It’s part of a project to ensure that more seafarers in the world become members of unions that provide them with a good standard of services and representation. But you don’t need to receive a questionnaire to start thinking about the kind of representation you would like, and whether there might be something you can do to get it.

The project began in 1999 with a two-year study of the maritime trade union situation in countries such as the Philippines, Russia, Indonesia and the Ukraine, which have significant numbers of seafarer nationals employed on the coast or abroad. It has now moved on to concentrate also on countries whose seafarers are particularly exploited or where no seafarers’ union exists, or where a limited amount of union development could make a big difference to the life of the seafarers. Malaysia, Burma, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Tanzania, Egypt, Panama, Peru and Turkey are examples.

The questionnaire will ask whether you are a member of a seafarers’ union, what the union does to assist you and how this could be improved. If you are not a member of a union, the questionnaire will ask what the minimum standard of service a seafarers’ organisation back home should provide to convince you to become a member.

A good trade union should promote a seafarer’s rights and interests at all times. It should for example:
  • seek good terms and conditions of employment at the outset when a seafarer is recruited
  • act as a point of advice and information once employment begins
  • step in to represent and support seafarers during shipboard disputes or while on leave
  • handle any problems you may encounter with a manning agent
  • offer political representation such as lobbying governments to promote international maritime conventions and to eliminate blacklisting.
Our research has already established the number of unions organising seafarers in the countries mentioned, and how effectively they are looking after the interests of seafarers. The next move is to put in place education programmes that will develop the trade unions and their officials so they are in a better position to respond to the needs of their seafarer members.

We have been talking to maritime unions, governments and even shipping companies to get a good picture of the environment in which a seafarers’ union has to operate but ISUDP exists for the benefit of seafarers, so for us the seafarers’ perspective is the most important part of the picture.

We would like to encourage any seafarer to consider what you can do to change your union if it is not democratic or is influenced by shipowners, or does not have the structure in place to give you good representation.

For example does your union have a system in which a shipboard delegate is elected by the crew to help settle crew disputes and to keep in touch with the union? Would it help improve things for you if this system were developed and if so how can you influence your union to establish it?

In countries where our programme has implemented education and development initiatives, we will be monitoring the situation to see if things have changed for the better for seafarers at shipboard level. We will be asking you at a later stage in the programme to what degree this has happened.

Many seafarers know of the ITF and its reputation for assisting seafarers in distress. In many cases a seafarer will contact the ITF first even though they are members of a national seafarers’ union. This means that seafarers either do not know enough about their national union to ask it for help or they do not have enough confidence that the national union will assist them effectively. Either way something needs to change.

Obviously it will not be possible to reach every seafarer with the questionnaire. But whether you receive a questionnaire or not, your consideration and discussion of these issues with your fellow crew members could be your first step to improving your representation and your working life.

Seafarers’ unions and membership

Country Seafarers Seafarers' unions
or federations
Seafarers' union
Philippines 490,000 10 85,000
Russia 95,000  70,000 
Indonesia 80,000 1 25,000 
Ukraine 70,000  40,000 
Malaysia 25,000 300 
Croatia 25,000  7,000 
Sri Lanka
20,000 500 
Tanzania 10,000  3,000 
Bangladesh 6,000 2 4,500 
Panama 5,000  2,000 

Source: ITF