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Union ships are happier

The results of a major survey (2006) on the working conditions aboard car carrier vessels have provided some useful, if unsurprising data for seafarers’ rights campaigners. Erol Kahveci reports…

The message from 627 non-officer-ranked seafarers, or ratings, surveyed over the past two years in a major international study is clear: seafarers feel happier, healthier and more valued when employed on national carriers than on flag of convenience (FOC) ships.

But those on FOC ships feel distinctly better off if they are serving on a ship with an ITF agreement. The survey also confirms what trade unions already believed to be likely – that FOC car carriers have a relatively high coverage of ITF agreements compared to the general fleet.

The research, which was jointly funded by the United Nations Economic and Social Council and the Seafarers’ International Research Centre in Cardiff, UK, took 21 months to complete. It was conducted using a variety of techniques, including interviews, focus groups and onboard observation.

Motivated to sign up

In the entire international fleet of all types of ships about 60 per cent are generally reckoned to carry FOCs and 40 per cent national flags. Of those ships that are FOC, the ITF estimates that about 30 per cent are covered by one of its collective agreements.

Trade union officials are of the view that because car carriers have high value cargo and run on very tight schedules, they are more likely to take out the “insurance policy” of an ITF agreement.

Also relevant is that Japanese ownership is disproportionately high in the car carrier sector and Japanese companies are likely to belong to the Joint Negotiating Group which, along with the ITF, forms part of the International Bargaining Forum. The IBF negotiates pay and conditions for seafarers on FOC ships.

The survey results match the general pattern of national versus FOC distribution (40 per cent national flags versus 60 per cent FOC), while the percentage of FOCs with union agreements is considerably higher than in the general picture. Of all the FOC car carriers, 62 per cent have uniform (known as “total crew cost” or TCC) ITF agreements, nine per cent have agreements negotiated by the IBF, of which the ITF is a member, and 28 per cent have no ITF-recognised agreement.

Patterns of perception

But what difference does the presence of national flags and the different types of agreement make? A great deal of difference, according to the results of our survey. And what is particularly impressive, is that the same pattern of responses permeates a whole number of aspects of shipboard life and working conditions.

Ratings working under national flags are more likely to express positive attitudes about their relationships with their company and crewing agency (which in the case of national flags are usually company specific) than those working on FOC ships with agreements.

And these in turn are much more likely to do so than those on FOCs without agreements.
We asked seafarers some standard questions about their pride in and loyalty to their companies. Respondents may have thought it prudent to give positive responses to such questions, but they still did so in a differentiated manner according to the same pattern, which in turn reflected the pattern of provision of welfare benefits, including those for retirement and health care.

The ITF agreements are not fully comprehensive. As a result of the contractual nature of employment in the industry, the TCC agreement does not cover pensions. Apart from Singapore, most seafarers from Asian countries have no retirement pension contribution from their employer and this is also rare for those from Indian Ocean and East European countries.

These agreements are similarly silent on the provision of medical care when on leave. Filipinos (the largest national group) have medical health cover for a maximum period of six months when on leave, and it is mandatory for them to contribute to a medical insurance system. Seafarers from the Indian Ocean, East European and Asian countries are less fortunate, the great majority – 95, 100 and 72 per cent of those surveyed respectively – have no such benefit.

The need to feel valued

On matters related to training and skill development and to hours of work and rest, the pattern is once again clear: those working under national flags are more likely to make positive evaluations than those under ITF-recognised agreements, and these again tend to be more positive than those on FOC ships with no agreements. Such responses go hand in hand with ratings’ evaluations of their officers’ performance, as judged by how well they keep them informed, treat them fairly and similar indicators.

Various dimensions of work experience point in the same direction. They are to be seen in ratings’ perceptions of how well they are consulted and of the influence they perceive themselves to have over how they work. They relate to how hard they work and issues related to stress and job security; and to further important aspects of work – their satisfaction with pay, physical working conditions and the extent to which they report having worked in physical pain or discomfort.

Overall, it is clear that ratings who work on FOC ships that lack ITF agreements are the most disadvantaged. Among other things, they are less likely to be encouraged to develop their skills, to feel that their jobs are secure or to be consulted on crewing, pay, health and safety and other issues. And they are less likely to feel that they have any influence over their work. Not surprisingly, they are less likely to take pride in who they work for.

The majority of ratings on car carriers lack six hours’ uninterrupted rest a day, but those on ships that lack ITF agreements are particularly likely to do so. They are also more likely to feel they work very hard, to feel pushed for time and to worry about their jobs during their rest hours. In future, too, they will be more likely to lack free email communication home – a new ITF agreement that comes into effect in 2006 includes the provision of funding for this on each IBF ship.

The message for those wanting to go to sea on car carriers is clear enough: go for a national flag. Failing that go for an FOC with an ITF agreement.

Dr Erol Kahveci is a senior research associate at the Seafarers’ International Research Centre in Cardiff, UK. “The Other Car Workers”, by Erol Kahveci and Theo Nichols, Palgrave Macmillan, is to be published in 2006.

Attitude of ratings aboard national flags and flags of convenience (FOCs), with and without ITF agreements

All ratings National
flag %
FOC with ITF
agreement %
FOC without ITF
agreement %
Perceptions of shipping companies' attitude to unions      
In favour  27  17 
Neutral 57  45  21 
Not in favour 16  38  72 
Good relationships       
With the company  82  67  48 
With the crewing agency  84  55  42 
Between officers and ratings  70  71  54 
Company loyalty and pride       
I feel loyal to the company  86  78  72 
I feel proud of who I work for  74  56  41 
Social welfare provision – yes       
Retirement plan with employer 68  28  20 
Medical insurance on leave 74  56  41 
Training and skills       
Training provided by company over
last 12 months
67  40  10 
Encouraged to develop skills  84  51  40 
Have 6 hours' uninterrupted rest every day 27 
Work over 72 hours a week  43  84  80 
Positive perception of officer performance      
Keeping you up to date 85  59  42 
Providing chance to comment  79  41  24 
Responding to suggestions  77  42  27 
Dealing with crew problems  81  53  42 
Treating employees fairly  80  53  47 
Consultation – frequently or sometimes      
Crewing issues  38  13 
Change to work practices  38  20 
Pay issues  34  15 
Health and safety  68  63  42 
Perception of influence – a lot or some       
On range of tasks  56  36  20 
On pace of work  57  21  13 
On how work is done  61  25  15 
Job intensity, work related stress and job security       
My job requires that I work very hard  62  79  85 
I never seem to have enough time to get my job done  34  57  62 
I worry about my work during resting hours  34  68  80 
My job is secure  70  37  29 
Satisfaction with pay and physical conditions       
Pay  82  73  40 
Physical working conditions  78  44  30 
Working in pain       
Worked with physical pain or discomfort  23  24 

Source: Seafarers’ International Research Centre, Cardiff