Chinese seafarers’ union secures higher wages

Photo of union meeting with shipowners. Credit: National Committee of the Chinese Seamen and Construction Workers’ Union

The Chinese seafarers’ union, the National Committee of the Chinese Seamen and Construction Workers’ Union, has reached an agreement with the China Shipowners’ Association to raise Chinese seafarers’ minimum wages by 4% for 2020–21.

In addition, for 2021, Chinese seafarers’ meal allowances will be raised by USD1 per day, to account for inflation.

The union and the shipowners’ association have also concurred that death benefits will be raised for seamen who die while on duty. Compensation for seamen’s deaths will be increased by USD2,000 year on year in 2020, and then by 2% in 2021.

The increment in minimum wages is based on current economic conditions.

Collective wage negotiation is a common practice for labour unions to participate in co-ordinating labour relations under free market conditions. It is also an important means for labour unions in China to safeguard the legitimate rights and interests of employees.

Since the Chinese economy was liberalised under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping in the 1980s, Chinese seafarers have been competing for jobs in the international labour market for seafarers.

More and more international shipping companies are hiring Chinese seafarers and thus, competitive salaries are sought.

The Chinese seafarers’ union’s representative told SAS that it has been proactive in seeking fair employment conditions for its members.

The representative said, “Since 1999, we’ve established a collective negotiation mechanism with the Norwegian Shipowners’ Association. We carry out discussions with the Norwegian Shipowners’ Association on a regular basis in order to ensure standardised employment conditions for Chinese seafarers.”

The Chinese seafarers’ union’s agreement with the Norwegian Shipowners’ Association covers seafarers’ working conditions, working hours, minimum wage standards, and compensation standards for injuries and deaths.

The agreement between the Chinese seafarers’ union and Chinese shipowners appears to be in line with that of the International Labour Organization (ILO), which in 2018 recommended that seafarers’ minimum monthly wages be raised from USD614 to USD618 as of 1 July 2019, USD625 as of 1 January 2020, and USD 641 as of 1 January 2021, representing an overall increase of 4.5%.

Even then, there is no way to oblige countries or shipowners to follow the ILO’s recommendation.

In 2018, several hundreds of Indian seafarers, led by the Forward Seamen’s Union of India (FSUI), protested outside the Directorate General of Shipping. Their complaint was that privately owned Indian shipping companies were paying seafarers only USD105 a month, far below the ILO’s recommendation. Grievances were also raised over the lack of pensions for retired seamen.

However, the Directorate General of Shipping said that the FSUI is not recognised by the Indian government as a union and that the demand to raise wages was impractical.

Seafarers’ salaries appear to be far higher in the developed world. In May, South Korea’s Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries released data showing that crew on oceangoing fishing vessels were the best paid, drawing an average of USD6,356 a month.

The average monthly pay for mates and engineers came to USD4,568, with that for low-level crew reaching USD2,922. Their wages include base pay, overtime, bonuses, and other benefits.