ITF Wins Raise for Thousands of the World's Lowest-Paid Mariners

Bangladeshi ferries at sunset
File image courtesy World Bank

Published Apr 24, 2023 5:17 PM by The Maritime Executive

Mariners love to complain about day rates and talk about which companies have the best pay, but Bangladesh's inland crewmembers have more grounds for grouching than most. Until recently, deckhands and cooks on Bangladeshi riverboats earned as little as $95 a month. This is a minute fraction of seafarers' wages in the Western world, but $95 a month is low even by local standards in Bangladesh, far below the median national salary of $245. 

This unusually low rate of pay makes a recent union win for Bangladeshi inland boatmen all the more relevant: an ITF-affiliated union has won a pay increase of 60 percent for some of the world's least-compensated mariners, lifting 200,000 people up towards a livable wage. 

According to ITF, riverboat crewmembers in Bangladesh have been fighting for better pay for years. When the Bangladeshi government ended a longstanding practice of coupling automatic pay raises for boatmen with pay raises for state employees, wages stagnated for the 200,000 waterway workers (known locally as naujan) who ply the nation's navigable rivers. 

Under the hard-won agreement, ordinary seamen, cooks and cleaning staff on vessels on the country's main waterways will see their wages rise to $175 per month. The most senior captains on the waterways will now earn about $395 a month. “For some crew, their wages will have nearly doubled from this time last year,” said Ashiqul Alam Chowdhury, general secretary of the ITF affiliate Bangladesh Noujan Shramik Federation (BNSF). The new deal also includes seniority pay, a substantial housing allowance, better medical care, and backdated pay raises to November 2022.

The victory is a major win, but it is still far short of what BNSF would like for its members. 

"We have shown through our strike action how our work is critical to the economic life of Bangladesh. Without naujan, nothing moves in our country. We are the beating heart of Bangladesh," said Chowdhury. 

BNSF last went on strike in 2020 when it staged an action to demand food allowances for riverine vessel crew, as required by the Maritime Labor Convention (MLC). After a three-day strike shut down the 5,000 freighters operated by the Bangladesh Cargo Vessel Owners’ Association, the shipowners agreed to abide by the MLC and provide a meal allowance for vessels without a shipboard cook.