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The importance of joining a union

Evgeniy Hizhyak, chief technical labour inspector of the Seafarers’ Union of Russia (SUR), describes the importance for seafarers of joining a trade union:

"I have been a member of the SUR since 1991 and took part in organising this union, which provides help and support for seafarers both in Russia and abroad. The union assists its members in claims for compensation following injury or death, solves any problems about receiving money owed to them in unpaid contractual wages and fights for decent pay.

Now, government officials are telling seafarers, even those employed on Russian-flag vessels, to settle problems in countries like Cambodia or Belize where their bareboat-chartered ship is registered. But only a union – and the ITF – can advise seafarers what to do in such a situation, which can involve not only a shipowner, but also a crewing company and an unfair master.

That’s why it is so important and necessary to join a union. We shall be able to win the battle for seafarers’ justice and rights only if we are united and organised in unions.”

Tymoteusz Listewnik (below), a member of the National Maritime Section (NMS) of Solidarnosc, Poland:

"I joined the NMS barely three years ago. That was my first contact. It was through a trade unionist I met in a crewing agency. Before then, I didn’t know much about unions for seafarers. During my time at sea before then, many times I had had problems and questions when serving on flag of convenience ships, but nobody could clarify my uncertainty regarding my conditions of employment.

I had had queries about matters such as terminations of contract, unpaid overtime and the lack of contracts of employment. At first I accepted this situation, as everybody else on board did. After some time I had learned from other seafarers about the ITF and trade unions, but still for many months these organisations were remote from me. What a pity!

Now, after some visits and conversations with my union, all my conditions of engagement are clear to me. I know what to ask for in a crewing agency and how to prepare for my next tour of duty.

I would like to encourage all young seafarers to join a trade union affiliated to the ITF in their own country. At the start of a career at sea, most people pass over many things which after some time turn out to be important. Quite often appearances are misleading and a nice-looking ship with apparently good working conditions may be deceptive.

Let’s treat union membership as a kind of insurance, an information centre and institution that fights for our rights. It’s good to go through life knowing that at any time you can call on someone else – your union – for help.”

Andrzej Koscik, ITF Inspector, Gdynia, Poland:

"Seafarers are strong people. We should join together in solidarity. If we do, we are stronger. I am a seafarer and I know very well what it means to work on board, to be lonely, to be so far from your family, to be under pressure. We cannot be alone when we need help.

None of this is news, but we must remind the new generation of seafarers that we should join together in unions. Unions make you stronger. They help people who need help.”

Stephen Fernando, ITF Inspector, Tuticorin, India:

"Non-union seafarers usually have lower pay and their working time is not fixed. If anything happens to them on board the shipowner simply gets them admitted to a hospital and then sends them home – no compensation, no medical leave, no leave pay, no welfare fund and no pension. If all seafarers enrol in their own national unions, then those unions would be strong and their bargaining capacity would increase. All seafarers would benefit.”

Andrey Chernov, ITF Inspector, Klaipeda, Lithuania, asked a group of seafarers, all members of the Lithuanian Seamen’s Union, on the NIS (Norwegian international)-registered Ice Wind: “Why is it important to be a member of a trade union?” :

"The main answer was: ‘to be organised’. If you are organised you can elect and employ people who will represent your interests, negotiating better working conditions and pay.

The second reason given was ‘to be protected’ from unlawful actions by employers.
Union officials can provide legal protection, assistance and advice either by themselves or with the help of a professional lawyer.

The third reason was ‘to be informed’, because the union is always involved in seminars and meetings and collects information about how employers are treating their workers.”

Lucien H Razafindraibe, General Secretary, Sygmma (Syndicat général maritime de Madagascar), the maritime union of Madagascar:

"Workers have an interest in joining their union in order to understand, promote and protect their rights. Unions can also be a big help in the elaboration of collective conventions. A union’s strength resides principally in its capacity to call on members at times of protest.”

Chinmoy Roy, ITF Inspector, Calcutta, India:

"From my experience as an ITF Inspector, seafarers from labour-supplying countries have a much higher chance of getting exploited or cheated by crewing agents and shipowners if they are not union members. A union card can put fear in the way of these agencies. So union membership is a must for all seafarers.”

From India, Subhash Dey, second engineer, who has just won a back pay claim negotiated by Chinmoy Roy:

"I must first confess, that I am not a union member. But I have just received US$4,562 in four months’ back wages for serving on board the Indian-registered Vispataurini. This would not have been possible but for the intervention of the ITF. I will definitely join a union now.”

To find out how to contact your national ITF-affiliated union, please view the link on the right of this page.