Women seafarers: Fighting against the tide? As on land, so by sea: Women join the ranks of seafarers

Once only figureheads on the world's ocean-going ships, the entrance of women into the seafaring trade is a small, but growing phenomenon. Yet as women work their way onto the world's great ships, salt and the sea are only part of the challenges they face. As a new landmark ILO study points out, discrimination, sexual harassment and deep skepticism over their strengths and capabilities can be equally challenging.

"My dad was in the Royal Navy. I was brought up in a coastal area, so the sea was sort of part of my life..." "My father's at sea, my uncle's at sea, my grandfathers were at sea..." "I'm not interested in office jobs.I'm not interested in administrative work and all that..."

The musings of a young adventurer, gazing out at the endless horizon and dreaming of boats taking them far away? Yes, but with a slight twist. The statements are from women who have followed their male forebears to the seafaring trade, in effect crossing a "gender gap" that was once wider than any ocean.

These and more comments highlight a new ILO study, "Women Seafarers: Global employment policies and practices" ( Note 1), the first to focus on contemporary women seafarers at a global level.

The book covers every aspect of a woman seafarer's life - from employment rights to maternity rights. It finds that though making inroads on the sea lanes, women seafarers face not only the general challenges of weather, hard work and rough seas, but also inordinate amounts of discrimination, sexual harassment and parental disapproval as well as often being relegated low-paying jobs with limited opportunities for promotion.

"In the past 50 years women have come to be employed in steadily increasing numbers aboard the world's merchant ships and cruise liners," says Cleopatra Doumbia-Henry, Director of the ILO Sectoral Activities Department. "If this study helps improve the conditions of work of even a few women, it will be a success. We, of course, hope it will lead to greater participation - and better quality jobs - for women at sea and in the maritime industry as a whole."

According to some of the women interviewed for the study, those days of balmy working conditions may be some time off.Women seafarers reported comments like their place being "in the kitchen" rather than on deck, that women weren't suited for the sea because they "all argue with each other" (as if men don't!), being told "blonde jokes" or given the worst, dirtiest jobs.

"The lads I was sailing with spent about four months doing those awful jobs, and then they were up on the bridge in a clean environment," said one woman who spoke about being tested to see if she had the "right stuff" for the job.They will push a woman a lot, lot harder."

Some women reported taking drastic measures to avoid being harassed, including altering or "de-feminizing" their appearance (one woman engineer actually shaved her head!).Another cited how she had to punch a chief officer to get him out of her room.

So, why pursue a potentially hostile and turbulent life at sea? Women have long worked on passenger and cruise ships, and since 1945, have appeared more and more on freighters and other commercial ships.For some, potential earnings, for others tradition inspires work at sea.In the interview below, Ms. Doumbia-Henry explains who the women seafarers are, how many are working and where, and what the prospects are for improving their lives.

How many women are employed aboard ships?

Women represent only 1-2 per cent of the world's 1.25 million seafarers. However, in the cruise line sector, they represent 17-18% of the workforce. Ninety-four per cent of women are employed on passenger ships (with 68% on ferries and 26% on cruise ships) and 6% are employed on cargo vessels (i.e., container ships, oil tankers, etc.). As for jobs, there are women shipmasters and chief engineers, as well as other officers. However, generally, women are working as hotel staff on passenger ships.Of this latter group, 51.2% of women at sea come from OECD countries, 23.6% from Eastern Europe, 9.8% from Latin America and Africa, 13.7% from the Far East, and 1.7% from south Asia and the Middle East.

Are they accepted on board?

First, as concerns getting the training to go to sea, there does not appear to be a great problem overall. In fact, many maritime training institutions are actively encouraging women to enrol.Once on board vessels, women often experience problems in being initially accepted, sometimes having to "prove themselves".However, over time they are usually able to integrate themselves into crews, and become accepted and appreciated by their colleagues.As concerns promotion on cargo vessels, the survey indicates that women feel they have the same promotion possibilities as men, though this varies among companies; in some companies they feel there is a reluctance to promote them to senior positions, in others there may be special efforts to promote women. As concerns those working in the hotel sector on passenger vessels, the situation is less clear. It appears promotion may often be more related to ethnicity than gender.

How can companies improve conditions for women seafarers?

Sexual harassment is a reality for many women at sea. This can range from persistent verbal harassment and inappropriate comments, to physical assault. However, cruise-sector companies which have established high-profile sexual harassment policies, seemed to have been able to reduce the number of incidents of harassment, and to encourage women to seek company support in such situations. There seems to be less attention to these matters in the cargo sector.As concerns other issues, such as maternity benefits and availability of certain products required by women, it seems we have a way to go.

What are some of the advantages of having women aboard ships?

A great advantage is that it creates a more normal social environment. This is particularly important because the nature of seafaring life has changed in recent years. There is less time to go ashore and there are less people on board. Having women as part of the crew can reduce the sense of isolation felt by many seafarers. Furthermore, recent labour surveys of the shipping sector have indicated an existing - and growing - shortfall of certain categories of seafarers, particularly officers.Women are an underutilized source of maritime talent which we need to draw upon to make up this shortfall.

What can be done to improve conditions for women at sea and attract them to the seafaring profession?

First, I should note that the maritime community has a number of parts: companies, trade unions, seafarers' welfare organizations, and others. They each may have a role. Companies, for example, could try to place new recruits aboard vessels with women officers. Sexual harassment policies are, of course, important. Trade unions should take up these matters and other issues, such as maternity benefits, when negotiating collective agreements.

We also can't forget that improving conditions of women at sea is also related to improving conditions of work for all seafarers - male or female. Therefore, any efforts to improve conditions of work at sea will also benefit women. In this regard, the ILO is in the process of consolidating its many maritime labour Conventions into a single, consolidated standard. The aim is to adopt a standard which is widely - if not universally - accepted, and which will improve conditions for all seafarers.At the national level, and at the company level, there should be increased emphasis on improving shipboard conditions.By conditions, we mean pay, accommodation, safety, longer leave periods, etc.

What stimulated the ILO to commission this study?

The ILO is very serious about gender issues, and takes them into account in all areas of our work. Thus, when we commissioned SIRC to undertake a study on conditions of work of seafarers as the main discussion document for a meeting in 1991 of the ILO Joint Maritime Commission (JMC) - a bipartite body consisting of representatives of the world's shipowner and seafarer representatives - we asked that the study include a gender perspective. The JMC discussed the report and went a step further by adopting a Resolution calling for a specific study on women seafarers.

What is the ILO doing to follow up on this study?

First, we are seeking to have it widely distributed in the international maritime community. Using the study as a resource document in all our maritime activities, we will use it to promote gender sensitive policies in the maritime industry, and also work with the International Maritime Organization.

How can people obtain a copy of the book

You can visit the ILO Web site at www.ilo.org. On the right-hand side, you will see the word "publications". Click on this and it will take you to information on the book.Please note that it is possible to view one of the chapters in the book by visiting the Web site.

What about the old saying that women are bad luck at sea?

An interesting myth, sort of like the myth that you will fall off the edge of the earth if you sail too far from port.But this is the twenty-first century, we know the earth is round and that superstitions have nothing to do with it. The ILO pursues a modern social agenda, with a strong gender component. Our work on behalf of women seafarers is a classic example of "mainstreaming" gender into all elements of a trade. In this case, mainstreaming extends also to all seven seas.

ILO body updates minimum wage for seafarers

A Sub-Committee of the Joint Maritime Commission (JMC) of the International Labour Organization (ILO) has extended the validity of the current ILO minimum wage for seafarers of US$465 to 31 December 2004. That figure became applicable on 1 January 2003. It also agreed to increase this minimum wage to US$500 effective 1 January 2005.

In addition to the minimum wage issue, the Joint Working Group of the JMC provided guidance to Ship-owner and Seafarer representatives and national authorities on how this wage should be interpreted taking into account hours of work, overtime, leave entitlement, and weekly rest day and public holidays.

A substantial percentage of the world's more than 1.5 million seafarers are affected by changes in the recommended ILO minimum wage for able seafarers.This figure includes catering and hotel staff on passenger ships and other categories of persons, including those working aboard coastal vessels. Ten nations, including the Philippines, Indonesia, China, Turkey, the Russian Federation, India, the United States, Ukraine, Greece and Japan supply almost 60 per cent of the world's seafarers.

With a gross tonnage over two million tons, three countries emerged as major maritime nations in 2002: Spain, Cambodia and the Cayman Islands. Australia and Belize are no longer in the list of thirty-nine major maritime nations, according to Lloyds Register World Fleet Statistics 2002.

The mechanism for setting the minimum wage for able seafarers is provided for by the ILO Seafarers' Wages, Hours of Work and the Manning of Ships Recommendation, 1996 (No. 187). The ILO minimum wage takes into consideration a formula which reflects changes in consumer prices and exchange rates against the US dollar in fourty-nine maritime countries and areas.

The application of Recommendation No. 187 is not mandatory. However, governments may nevertheless choose to translate the contents of this instrument into national law. Moreover, the Recommendation is used by ship-owners and trade unions in setting wage scales.The mechanism is the only one in the ILO for setting the basic monthly wage for any industry.

Note 1: Women Seafarers - Global Employment policies and practices, International Labour Office, 2003, ISBN 92-2-113491-1.
ILO publications can be obtained through major booksellers or ILO local offices in many countries, or direct from ILO Publications, International Labour Office, CH-1211 Geneva 22, Switzerland.