Steps made to improve seafarers’ employment rights

The European Commission has announced proposals to include seafarers in five employment and social policy directives from which they are currently excluded. The changes would give them access to statutory forms of information and consultation and they would enjoy the same protection as other workers if their employer became insolvent or if ownership of the company they worked for changed. EU-based shipping companies are also offered help to remain competitive in the global market.

Background

As part of the European Commission’s (EC) better regulation policy, it issued a ‘Fitness Check’ report in July 2013 focusing on worker involvement issues in EU law. It examines the directives that cover worker information and consultation at national level (EU1308011I).

The report concludes that the exclusion of seafarers from the directives is a gap that has to be addressed. At present, five EU labour law directives allow Member States to exclude seafarers from the protection they offer to workers. They are:

Not all Member States make use of the option to exclude seafarers from labour laws to the same extent and, in fact, most have made little or no use of the possible exclusions. Eight states have not excluded seafarers from any of the directives and a further eight have made use of only one exclusion. This means, concludes the report, that the same category of workers can be treated differently in different Member States.

New rights for seafarers

An EC Directive, on seafarers amending Directives 2008/94/EC, 2009/38/EC, 2002/14/EC, 98/59/EC and 2001/23/EC (91.6 KB PDF), was issued on 18 November 2013. It proposes giving seafarers the same rights to information as their onshore colleagues about collective redundancies, transfers of all or part of the company they work for, employer insolvency and all the issues covered by the information and consultation directive.

They would also have the right to participate in European Works Councils. Share-fishermen (that is, fishermen who receive a share of the catch as part of their salary) would also be protected if their employer became insolvent and was unable to pay their wages; they would be able to apply to the national insolvency fund for compensation.

The buying and selling of vessels is very common in the maritime sector. The proposal also suggests measures to help EU shipping companies in these highly competitive global markets. For example, when a vessel is being bought or sold, Member States could under certain conditions waive the waiting period that normally applies after the notification of planned collective redundancies to the competent public authorities.

It is hoped that the proposals will enhance the living and working conditions of seafarers and promote fairer competition in the sector across the EU. The number of seafarers is decreasing, and it is also hoped that the changes will increase the attractiveness of the sector to young people.

Finally, as there are wide variations in the size and nature of the Member States’ maritime sectors and in their use of the options to exclude seafarers from the directives, a transition period of five years is suggested to allow Member States to transpose the changes into national legislation and practice.

The proposal will now be passed to the Council of Ministers and the European Parliament for approval.

Commentary

This new proposal, which will enhance the information and consultation rights of seafarers, is a direct consequence of a number of consultations that have been carried out by the Commission since 2006, and also of its recent fitness check of information and consultation.

The focus is on creating a level playing field in the sector. However, the Commission believes it is particularly important to improve the sector’s attractiveness to workers, not just because of labour shortages in the offshore sector, but also because offshore experience is essential for certain shore-based jobs.

László Andor, European Commissioner for Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion, welcomed the proposal, stating:

Offshore and onshore workers should have equal rights, in particular when it comes to such a fundamental right as information and consultation. This proposal would improve the living and working conditions of seafarers and so help to attract more young people to work in the maritime sector. It would also create a level playing field in Europe’s maritime sector, since all shipping and fisheries companies within the EU would have the same obligations.

Andrea Broughton, Institute for Employment Studies

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