Unions representing more than 180,000 tug, towage, river cruise, other inland waterways and ferry workers globally met in Amsterdam this week for the Inland Navigation Section Conference of the International Transport Workers’ Federation’s (ITF).
The conference brought together 110 unions from 65 countries, alongside sustainable transport experts and supply chain leaders.
“Inland navigation is a diverse sector with different working lives led by our affiliate’s members across the different industries. What unites us is that we move the world. Our jobs are critical to moving the people and cargo that keeps the world and its economy moving forward, and we are very proud of that,” said ITF Inland Navigation Section chair Yury Sukhorukov.
“Our biggest challenge is a lack of consistent rules and regulations from governments, and inconsistent treatment by the firms that determine the direction of our industries,” he said.
Many of the delegates also identified climate change as an issue increasingly affecting workers. River levels in both South America and Europe ran so low due during summer months in recent years to prevent the waterways’ navigability by river cargo vessels
“While our problems are local, the solutions are global. Our conference has been a productive, inspiring one - leaving us united to fight strongly for inland navigation workers for the next five years to come,” said Sukhorukov.
Consistent rules, fair treatment needed for health and safety
Sukhorukov said a large focus for the conference delegates would be on formulating plans to win minimum standards from governments across borders and consistency from employers in the treatment of inland navigation workers.
“In river cruise, a worker might be paid five or even eight different wage rates, as they cross borders making the journey up the Danube or down the Rhine rivers. While that is clearly a ridiculous situation – overcomplicating social security calculations among other things – this inconsistent treatment can also be profoundly dangerous for workers.”
Sukhorukov said health and safety was being compromised, and some workers were falling through the cracks as cruise operations and subcontracting operated across multiple, and sometimes even overlapping, legal jurisdictions.
Valentina, a Serbian river cruise worker who had previously worked on cruise ships at sea, told the conference why action was needed to address a lack of appropriate, consistent safety standards across the sector.
"I was sexually harassed on my first voyage by my supervisor - a chef,” she told delegates.
“It started with him 'accidentally' touching my buttocks. Then more touching. Then neck breathing and comments. I made a complaint to my supervisor's boss. When I did, my boss took me aside. He offered me a beer. He said 'we are buddies, aren't we?'. I refused.”
“Me and my husband tried to raise the issue. We emailed everyone. Even the CEO of the company. They said they didn't want this to happen, but they didn't help us. They didn't even help with our travel home when I signed off the vessel,” said Valentina.
“After this experience, I see so many women are ashamed of what they went through. But there is no need to feel ashamed. It is our industry that should be ashamed - because it is our industry that needs to change.”
Sukhorukov said having more collective bargaining agreements covering river cruise vessels would ensure more consistent treatment for workers, with common mechanisms for preventing, addressing and resolving safety issues across national borders, such sexual harassment.
The chair also said every country needed to adopt International Labour Organization Convention 190 and ratify it into their local laws without delay. ‘ILO C190’ is a new convention, which lays out workers’ rights to safe workplaces free from harassment and violence. The ITF organised a special meeting to discuss the the convention and its potential to improve safety outcomes for maritime workers. Delegates strongly welcomed a commitment given by Dutch government representative Erik van de Haar, that the Netherlands would complete ratification within the first few months of 2023.
Tug campaign boasts wins, but boats still crave consistency from consolidated giants
Amongst the Inland Navigation Conference delegates is a strong contingent of unions representing workers in the tug sector. Delegates were updated on the progress of the joint campaign launched by the ITF and European Transport Workers’ Federation to ‘stop the race to the bottom’, where downward pressure was being applied to tug rates by a small set of towage providers either owned or dominated by the market power of the major shipping lines.
"We had major problems with MedTug, owned by MSC, which came to Belgian ports and did not respect national collective bargaining agreements and thus unfairly competed with the family-owned tug company, Boluda. Eventually MedTug departed as a standalone provider and instead returned alongside Boluda, and we even see cooperation now between the two companies. There is once again application of the wages, conditions and safety measures that the crew are familiar with and rightfully deserve, said Jacques Kerkhof, chairman of the ETF's towing committee.
“While we have been successful thanks to this campaign to insist that all operators in the Port of Antwerp adhere to the appropriate standards, our concern remains that in this port and indeed across Europe and the globe, that these shipping giants have further consolidated control of towage services and indeed many other transport services into fewer and fewer hands. Since the pandemic began, Maersk’s mergers and acquisitions have painted a similar picture of supply chain consolidation. The question is: will these giants use their market strength for good, to support safe tug rates and decent work – or will they drive down pay and conditions in this critical sector to unsafe levels, risking whole supply chains for the sake of short-term super profits?” said Kerkhof.
Svitzer, Panama Canal Authority put on notice by global unions
Delegates heard how Maersk-owned Svitzer Towage continued to drive a race to the bottom in tug rates in at least two regions.
In Argentina, delegates informed conference of what they say is Svitzer applying downward pressure on tug rates through outsourcing and contracting practices, leading to downward pressure on wages, conditions and safety for crew.
In Australia, the companies’ practices have been similar. Svitzer’s Australia exited the Port of Geelong in December 2020, laying off crew just before Christmas, only to return six months later employing the same tug vessels – but with different crew, the new workers paid less and hired not directly but instead outsourced. Svitzer’s tendency for Christmas surprises in Australia made a comeback in 2022, when in late November local managers made the widely-criticised decision to lock out their entire Australian workforce during a cost of living crisis. However, Australia’s industrial courts were quick to block the managers’ lockout bid. ITF is now urging the company to come back to the negotiating table, and for the Maersk company to treat all its tug crew with respect.
Delegates also heard how in Panama the canal authority (ACP) continues to frustrate the human and labour rights of Panamanian tug captains, drawing out renegotiation of their collective bargaining agreement by more than three years with the engineers in a similar position. Unions remained steadfast in their solidarity with our affiliates. Speakers from across the world urged greater conciliation from the employer’s side to progress talks, and also to address the concerns on fatigue for tug boat captains that have been consistently raised with the Panama Canal Authority.
Unions also showed their support for striking Bangladesh inland waterway workers, who are demanding a minimum wage of at least BDT 20,000 (about $195 USD) per month.
Notes to editors:
- A brief biography of the section chair is available here.
- Valentina’s surname has been withheld at the decision of the ITF to protect her privacy.