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
|FOC with ITF
|FOC without ITF
|Perceptions of shipping companies' attitude to unions|
|Not in favour||16||38||72|
|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
|Encouraged to develop skills||84||51||40|
|Have 6 hours' uninterrupted rest every day||27||8||2|
|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|
|Change to work practices||38||20||9|
|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|
|Physical working conditions||78||44||30|
|Working in pain|
|Worked with physical pain or discomfort||9||23||24|
Source: Seafarers’ International Research Centre, Cardiff