Cultivating Humane Labour Practices in the Maritime Industry

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Shaharaj Ahmed, the winner of the Future Maritime Leaders essay competition, argues that enforcing humane labour practices is the maritime industry’s most critical human sustainability issue. In his essay he focuses on seafarers' long working hours and low payment issues.

The maritime industry faces a range of challenges in managing workforce wellbeing. One critical issue is retraining the workforce to adapt to the next generation of shipping infrastructure in the form of smart ships and autonomous ports.

Though upskilling is important in keeping the workforce relevant in terms of skills and competence, enforcing humane labour practices is the maritime industry’s most critical issue in human sustainability due to its significant wellbeing costs. I focus on working hours and payment issues in this article, however, a plethora of other abuses exist such as crew abandonment and a lack of crew change.

With regards to working hours, seafarers are commonly known to bear 12-hour work shifts with no rest days, as opposed to the International Labour Organization’s (ILO) maritime conventions which dictate, under normal circumstances, 8-hour work shifts with one rest day.

On payroll, workers suffer underpayment, delayed payment, and even non-payment. The International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) recovered $37.8 million in 2018, $43.6 million in 2019[3], and $44.6 million in 2020 of owned wages for seafarers from shipping companies, indicating non-payment is a serious and sustained issue in the industry and poses heavy socio-economic costs on seafarer wellbeing.

There are several reasons for inhumane labour practices. Chief amongst them is enforcement inefficiencies.

Though organizations such as the International Maritime Organizations (IMO) and ILO stipulate maximum working hours and minimum wages, it is ultimately up to states to enforce such regulations.

A 2019 study by the World Maritime University (WMU) found that 80% of their interviewed seafarers reported working between 12 – 15 hours per day, demonstrating clear enforcement gaps in the current international regulatiory framework and in direct violation of ILO working regulations.

Another reason for inhumane labour practices is that industrial culture often requires workers to adopt a ship-first attitude; hence, seafarers assume a ‘culture of adjustment’, whereby,

according to the WMU, seafarers inaccurately report shorter working hours. Seafarers do this to avoid operational disruptions such as sanctions from authorities that may jeopardize income security.

Yet, what inaccurate reporting means is a higher likelihood of marine accidents as fatigued crews operate ships. In 2020, 49 container ships, each weighing over 100 gross tons, were lost at sea, causing severe economic losses to their owners. A 2018 study found that 85% of maritime accidents between 2002 - 2016 were directly attributable to human error and of that 10.2% of cases were attributable to fatigue.

How then can the industry address such a challenge? I propose four solutions on structural and technological grounds.

First, the IMO and regional/national maritime authorities should set policy that makes states enforce financial penalties on the shipping firms as opposed to ship crew themselves. This removes financial incentives for seafarers to misreport data.

Second, seafarers should be provided their own biometric keys to ensure that the data submitted is strictly their own. I suggest this policy since, in the 2019 WMU study, 60% of seafarers report that their working hours were regularly altered by colleagues, indicating significant security, privacy, and data validity risks.

Thirdly, seafarers should be able to submit working hour data privately. This is to protect seafarers from reprisals from colleagues and/or management.

The last solution is the application of blockchain technology which will serve as a reinforcing solution to the previously identified ones insofar that it ensures payments are made on time and that seafarers publish authentic working hour data.

Blockchain is essentially a public digital ledger that records transactions. Every time a transaction is made, it becomes represented in a set of transactions called a block. The block is then broadcasted to nodes (other users in a blockchain network), who then validate the block and the transaction. After the block and the transaction becomes validated, it is added to the chain, the long list of blocks before it. The transaction is now verified and completed.

The advantages of such a system are that it promotes transparency, as users on the blockchain network are able to verify all previous transactions on the chain. Furthermore, it fights fraud as multiple nodes keep track of all blocks, preventing users from editing/deleting verified blocks.

Currently, the technology is already being applied in the containerized shipping sector, whereby blockchain is being used to reduce information and transaction costs by tracking the stage of goods in the shipping cycle. IBM, which is leading one of the consortium groups driving blockchain in the containerized shipping sector, identified that blockchain could save the sector up to $38 billion a year.

In the same vein, blockchain can be used to track working hour data and payments data of seafarers.

By providing seafarers access to a blockchain network, the maritime industry can ensure valid data as records cannot be altered. Through tracking when payments were made via blockchain by companies to employees, stakeholders such as authorities, investors, trade unionists, and even members of the public are able to sanction firms if management misses payments.

The largest challenge to employing such a system would be the costs. First, significant resources must be spent by firms/authorities on building and maintaining blockchain networks. Such costs may be prohibitive for smaller firms. To this extent, piggybacking off current networks such as that of IBM and/or creating a consortium of firms to build such a network can drive costs down for all.

Second, all shipping firms will need to pay for free internet access on board. A 2019 survey found that only 82% of ships offered internet access to employees and only 58% offered free access. If ships are to continuously send and receive payments/working hour data, shipowners should provide such access.

To conclude, considering the massive economic costs to shipping firms and, more importantly, the socio-economic costs to worker well-being by way of fatigue and pay issues, I consider it imperative to tackle such inhumane labour practices if the maritime industry is to significantly improve its approach to human sustainability by 2030.

Shaharaj Ahmed is a 22-year-old Economics Student at Yale-NUS College in Singapore.