The world market of maritime employment is attempting to rid itself of its “social shackles”. In disdain of national and international norms for employment and maritime laws, two principles will guide working relations from now on : illegal subcontracting of labour, and discrimination. In the face of these dangers, unions are preparing to fight.
What is there in common between a supertanker, a container-carrier, a roaming bulk carrier, a car ferry carrying out several crossings daily, and an ocean liner ? The sea, of course, but more precisely, the line of work at sea : these “sea people” who, thanks to their education, can spend their whole careers working in these various activities, as easily as specialising in a specific field - requiring a rapid, and specific training.
To describe a career is already difficult, but professional wayfaring is more than a career, it is a way of life. For seafarers : continual life on board in a confined space ; forced social relations in inescapable collective isolation ; the wild maritime environment ; the portal environment, with its professional stereotyping and cultural diversification. A traditionally masculine world, but everything is changing.... or at least could change.
In this article, we will be interested particularly in the seafarers working the shipping fleets, who handle 90% of the international materials trade. How many of them are there ? About a million, mainly from the Third World, on about 40 000 ships. And it is difficult to be any more precise - quoted figures vary considerably according to their sources and definitions.
We once had a maritime employment system that was essentially merchant-based, but which was under the constraints of strict national (and increasingly international) regulations. Overall, the regulations centred themselves around the "state flag/shipowner" couple, inherited from a time where the control of a national flag fighting fleet was considered as one of the economic and political powers of a country. It was also based on a capital/work relationship, allowing real social progress and thus it was progressively becoming integrated into national and international working laws of employment.
But after the last war, American oil companies began to think that they had the rights to place their ships under the fictional nationality of "States of convenience", in order to escape national social and tax laws. The system of "flags of convenience" was born, under the welcoming umbrella of "tax havens".
And from there, everything began to slip. Once the strong link of the system the State-shipowner-union triangle was broken, this allowed the most productive activities to celebrate, as well as the two components from which we can profit straightaway, employment and security. The third, more generally, is legality. Social dumping puts pressure on the other two, and can profit from them.
Free market for enslaved workers
It is possible to observe on the shipping market, the remnants of a structure that is currently liquidating, since the rights of seafarers from traditional shipping nations are subjected to continual competition from the non-rights of the rest of the world. In Europe, and particularly in France, one can see how the employment market, under the constant pressure of shipowners, frees itself from its social and union hindrances.
Extreme conditions are the most widely known, because they are reported in the media. Unpaid salaries, abandoned sailors covered in debt or rust (or both!), over-exploited and malnourished sailors, horrifying sanitary conditions, intimidation and murder if necessary, and with no way out. Exhausted vessels, mortal risks for the seafarers, but never for the owner... who is generally well looked after. From economic criminality, we quickly progress to criminality, plain and simple, under the immunity of worlds without law.
The situation is approaching slavery. A number of shipowners, and particularly labour dealers who work for their own profit, have implemented liberticide measures in order to achieve obedience from seafarers. One very common measure involves actually charging the seafarer to provide him with a job, currently one or two months’ salary. Clearly, the sailor does not have the money, and so the worker starts off indebted, which creates (in addition to plundering) subjection. Another method lies in delaying salary payment : whatever working or living conditions a sailor is subjected to, he will refuse to leave a ship if it is the only guarantee of receiving his unpaid salaries. Here again, we see plundering and subjection go hand-in-hand, and this is so seen frequently that we can no longer just attribute it to passing economic difficulties. The direct methods of intimidation are worse ; black lists a common practice.
We should not believe that the deterioration of working relations limits itself to the ghastly fringes of thuggish shipowners, however large it is. Just as in well-known militarisations, in the trafficking of large modern container-carriers, the situation is becoming strained : a reduction in ships’ crews, an increase in journeys and work flow, reduction in social covers, pressure on salaries. Having multinational crews is now becoming more common (often six or seven different nationalities in about 20 people) and favours exploitation, but we also see the decline of union actions, and even protests.
It is therefore in the global merchant navy that the employment market has more and more openly lost its constraints and regulations. Initially this was done under the cover of flags of convenience, and now it is “pseudo-flags of convenience”, under the cover of which maritime nations look to compete with their predecessors (for example in France, Kerguelen, alias TAAF and Wallis and Futuna). The ensuing chaos is structured by the strong determinism of unbridled competition, linked with two “strange attracting forces”, two general lines of force : illegal subcontracting of labour and discrimination.
A dangerous model
Illegal subcontracting of labour is an old idea that has been resurrected - a practice from the beginnings of the industrial revolution, that we thought had been eradicated, but which has made a come-back : workers are under contract from “manning” societies, labour dealers and not real employers, the shipowners. They gain the right to exploit the seafarers, and even terminate their employment. But the seafarer, without any employment contract with the shipowner himself, has no legal defence against overexploitation. His only option is to approach the “manning agency”, but they will simply proceed to blacklist his name in the profession.
This illegal subcontracting also allows crews to be composed of seafarers who are allegedly employed under the conditions of their country of origin, but in fact come under no other law than that of the global “free market”. " Amongst the crews, there is enormous diversity in class and origin. " And even the higher classes are dragged down. Social blankets and union rights now only concern upper echelons of managerial classes, and in some cases they have disappeared completely.
Such is the situation that we have allowed to develop in the international merchant navy, going against national, as well as global rights, and about which they would have us believe we are experiencing an inevitable aspect of modernity. The next stage is the attempt to introduce these practices into laws of employment; this is illustrated marvellously by the draft law supporting the new International French Register (the “ projet RIF ”) offered to French ships, but equally destined to attract foreign ships.
It is a managerially inspired project, aiming to replace any employment, union, or security laws on RIF vessels, by clauses chosen by the law. What clauses ? A patchwork of minimalist clauses, which are clearly chosen from (but without any precise reference to) the maritime conventions of the International Labour Organisation (ILO). Generally, they are clauses that allow working conditions inferior to those that would be accepted by French law (an interesting use of international law!). The legal working week returns to the 48 hours that we had before 1936 ; legal celebrations become contractual; the French minimum wage disappears, to be replaced by the International Labour Office’s maritime minimum wage (which varies from country to country, but whose average is around US$ 435), etc. And employment contracts are, without a doubt, fixed in duration.
Where the project is most innovative is in the introduction of labour subcontracting and discrimination, into French law.
The text effectively grants international “manning agencies” (now renamed “maritime labour businesses”) a bylaw, legalising the practice of labour subcontracting that we described above. It is the only point on which we find a precise reference to an ILO convention: in this case, convention n° 179 on recruitment and placement of seafarers. But actually this reference is fallacious, since “recruitment and placement” signify that the seaman actually has an employment contract with the shipowner, which is not the case when, as in the RIF project, there is “hiring and firing”. This abusive interpretation however, risks becoming commonplace, creating a serious breach in the international law domain which still lacks jurisprudence.
On the other hand, discrimination according to nationality is also omnipresent in the text. It disguises itself in order not to affect national law as much as international employment laws, establishing a differentiation by “place of residence” as if, during their shipment the seafarers remained in their country of origin (where their relevant social conditions therefore still apply). So again, this can become the example to follow, applying to other migrant workers, who are temporarily moved to fixed-term contracts.
But things have gone too far. Unusually for the profession, the reaction of the unions was unanimous. A massive strike provoked a slowing in the project’s development, dissension amongst its supporters and problems through electoral defeat. The issue is still not finished however. After a vote on the bill, led by the Senate last autumn (without the slightest negotiation or even initial contact with the unions), the parliamentary process was only momentarily interrupted. Primary success for the unions : they managed to open tripartite negotiations with the State and the shipowners. But the shipowners managed to hold strong on two points from their project: subcontracting of labour, and discrimination. Follow-up was therefore necessary.
Recently, a community bill  was put forward, relating to the service sector and the interior market, which allows (among other things) the service suppliers of a member State to send its labour to another member state, whilst maintaining the contract conditions from his country of origin. In the new context of an E.U. with 25 members, we can only imagine what perspectives this will open, not diminishing social inequalities, but organising them so that they can be best exploited ! How does this work ? The difference between service charges and subcontracting of labour is forgotten, and the RIF make the first move through immediately denying the difference; this creates the concept of “maritime labour entrepreneurs”, for whom “labour subcontracting” is their only task. The rift is open, and is even wider since the law will be ratifying a practice that is already tolerated.
The resulting discrimination can be seen at national, community and equally extra-community level: suppliers hire and “re-sell” in the global workers’ state. Here we see the cherry on the cake - these people who have been moved, no longer pose a threat of becoming immigrants where they work, since the supplier’s State will take them on at the end of their work.
The world "loop" finishes with the GATS (General Agreement on Trade in Services), whose principles were taken up by the community decree. For its application, the WTO (World Trade Organisation) has the use of an armed section, the "Dispute Settlement Body", in order to enforce its spread sector by sector.
International Law and Union strikes
But what we have just mentioned is still only a bill, and there are other stronger references. Non-discrimination by national origins figures explicitly in newer texts that should be integrated into existing ones: the Declaration of 1948, ILO conventions, and not forgetting article 14 from the European Convention on human rights in 1950. Despite the fact that the Treaty of Amsterdam “forgot” to mention them in the list of illegal discriminations (as did the European Constitution bill), we are not lacking in judicial arms. Still, arms are only useful if someone actually makes use of them...
In the international field, ILO maritime conventions and recommendations have progressively developed since 1920, into the elements of a real bylaw. They have applied pressure for social advances for seafarers in several countries. In France, from unstable permanent employment contracts, to stable bylaws, to the recognition of the career’s dignity, and to the consolidation of an already established system of social foresight. Social progress had not been an empty word since the 19th Century. Last time, the beginning of feminism was clear at all levels, particularly in Nordic countries.
International maritime employment conventions cover a large field from hiring, to eventual repatriation, passing by working conditions and life on board, health care, holidays and social protection (including protection for their families), and work inspections to crown it all. They trace out a new model of international professional bylaw, even if it cannot quite yet be classed as a model bylaw. It is the first in the world, in any case.
A “high level” tripartite work group of the International Labour Office is currently preparing “a unique and coherent instrument integrating all the norms of the maritime employment” in order to submit it to the ILO General Conference in 2005. France presides over the group, and has just also taken the lead with the movement, by ratifying all the conventions that remain. What a complete contradiction with the crazy saga of the RIF ! 
The ITF (International Transport Workers Federation) is also trying, little by little, to encourage the shipowners (using contractual measures) to respect the main elements of this bylaw, that States are not worried about applying at all. They are also trying to impose minimum salary norms, reducing the pressure on the decrease of the international workers’ market. According to the ITF, these agreements already apply to 140 000 seafarers, but they are permanently battling to increase their effectiveness and their expansion.
Marine merchants, the first industry in history to internationalise, now find themselves at the avant-garde of an uncontrolled deregulation called “neo-liberal globalisation”. Is this full social regression, or worse? History is not repeating itself, even when it appears to be stuttering. Do seafarers realise that they are at the head of a major battle in our civilisation ? They will have problems improving the situation themselves, but it affects us all, particularly those at the front line of migrant, itinerant, displaced and exploited (even from a distance) workers. Why don’t we make a case in point out of this first example of an international bylaw in a profession? The foundations of the renewal exist in international, maritime and workers’ laws, in maritime customs that are still alive, in workers’ union action and in the experiences of workers at sea and on the land. Institutional foundations also exist, but convenience lobbies rule there authoritatively and manage to overturn everything. How difficult would it be to turn everything the right way up again ?
Article written by François LILLE, published in "Plein droit" France, June 2004.
Translated by Lindsey PATERSON.
Geneva (Nouvelles du BIT, 3/10/2003 - Extract)
“Women seafarers - a rare species, but growing in the world of maritime transport - are often confronted with incredibly hard working conditions, involving discrimination and sexual harassment, despite the fact that the maritime sector is trying to adapt itself to the increasing reality of women working alongside men. In fact, the International Labour Office have just published a study on the subject...”
(Women seafarers - Global Employment policies and practices, ILO, 2003)
A campaign called “Trafics en mer: marins en galère!” (“Trafficking at sea: seafarers to the galleys”) was launched in November 2003 by the association AGIR ICI, jointly with ATTAC and BPEM (Biens Publics à l’échelle mondiale) . Twenty-four other associations and unions also supported it. Its aim ? To bring the question of working, hiring and living conditions of the world’s seafarers to the attention of the public, as well as bringing to light the essential battle against the use of flags of convenience.
Three initial demands were made: the need for ratification (by France, as well as other countries of the European Community) of ILO conventions, of a UN convention against ‘convenience registrations’, and the reform of the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) where flags of convenience are becoming ever more prominent. Since its creation, the campaign has found itself refocusing on a current piece of unforeseen and contradictory legislation: the RIF bill and the commitment to the ratification of ILO treaties. This fitted perfectly into its general objectives.
Translated by Lindsey PATERSON.