Seafaring: A Labor of Love

Mark Dickinson receiving the Merchant Navy Medal
Mark Dickinson receiving the Merchant Navy Medal

Published Jan 19, 2019 7:00 PM by Paul Gonzalez-Morgan, Editor Marine Strategy

Mark Dickinson, General Secretary of the trade union Nautilus International, was awarded the prestigious Merchant Navy Medal for meritorious service last year in recognition of his work on seafarer employment, training and welfare. We speak to him here about support for seafarers:

Is it fair to say pay is aligned with the role of being a seafarer?

Being a seafarer is a unique profession, of which there are few parallels, and often it is a labor of love. Pay is just another area in which there is often a discrepancy with onshore roles, despite the challenging and critical nature of the job. 

Regulations allow seafarers to work over 90 hours a week on contracts that stipulate that they could be away from home for up to a year at a time. Despite these sacrifices, unfortunately, many seafarers are still not paid a fair days wage for a fair days work. Flag states continue to allow employers to import cheap labor to undercut their own nationals and, in recent years, unfavorable market conditions have placed further downward pressure on wages in shipping. This makes pay negotiations very difficult.

In November, I led the seafarers’ delegation on behalf of the ITF (International Transport Workers’ Federation) at talks within the ILO Joint Maritime Commission to call for a raise in the global minimum wage which applies to seafarers (specifically for ABs). Around 1,650,000 seafarers crew the world’s ships, with many of these working very long hours, in dangerous conditions. And for some, this work is in return for a pittance.

Although not many European seafarers will actually be paid the ILO minimum, it is the floor upon which many other pay bargaining agreements are built. Therefore, it is vital that it rises in line with the general rise in the cost of living and in real terms too.

I am pleased that we managed to secure an increase in the minimum - it will rise to $641 per month over the next two years. However, shipowners need to remember that wage agreements like this outline the minimum amount of pay seafarers should receive – not the maximum. When you consider what seafarers endure at work and the efficiencies that the Merchant Navy has achieved in recent decades, as well as the importance of shipping to the global community, it is clear that this increase is justified.

How would you describe the working conditions of seafarers?
Since the launch of our “Jobs, Skills and the Future” campaign in 2015, we’ve been lobbying the government and industry to secure improved working conditions for our members which has resulted in some real improvements for those working in maritime. Despite this, there’s still a lot of work to be done to bring the conditions faced by seafarers, and others in the maritime and shipping industry, in line with workers ashore.

Physical fatigue and mental health not only impacts on individuals but also on the vessel and wider economy. It’s a very serious issue which must be addressed, and measures taken for the issue to be alleviated. At Nautilus International we have a 24/7 helpline, a worldwide network of lawyers and are part of the Nautilus Federation – a family of global maritime trade unions. This ensures that our members can always find the support they need, when they need it, wherever they are in the world. 

We are also developing a new mobile app which will give members instant access to advice and guidance following an incident.

I also find it shocking that in this day and age, access to the internet at sea is not viewed as a basic requirement. At home we take this for granted, and being able to contact anyone in the world at the touch of a button with devices in our pockets is fantastic. But why shouldn’t seafarers also be able to do this when they’re working away for months on end? We’re working hard to improve this situation, allowing seafarers to feel less isolated when working at sea. 

What more can the industry do to support their well-being?

Despite seafarers bringing us 95 percent of everything we consume as a nation, sadly there are still a number of areas of improvement to ensure professionals in the industry have the opportunity to work, progress in their careers and feel protected, safe and happy in their jobs. 

A simple bullet list of easy-to-implement improvements would be: 

•  Arranging working patterns so that they are not detrimental to physical and mental health.
•  Improving standards of accommodation. 
•  Providing adequate leisure and exercise facilities.
•  Providing a nutritious diet.
•  Reducing stress by providing adequate resources
•  Removing the culture of blame and finger pointing.
•  Reduce administrative burden and unnecessary interference often imposed from ashore. 

Are IMO/ILO Guidelines of Fair Treatment of Seafarers in the Event of a Maritime Accident fully adhered to in practical terms?

No, Nautilus’ recent survey on criminalization showed that 87 percent of seafarers still fear being criminalized whilst carrying out their work. The fair treatment of seafarers is one of our biggest priorities at the moment as we are continuing to see people disinclined to embark on a career at sea due to the danger of criminalization. 

The criminalization of the maritime profession has a damaging impact on not only the individuals who can suffer unfair treatment, but also on the recruitment and retention of skilled and experienced personnel. Sadly, seafarers remain at high risk of being treated as scapegoats after accidents at sea, and through our campaign, we hope to highlight the issue at the highest levels of government and within the industry, in addition to providing practical support to ensure that members’ rights are protected.

Is technology a threat or complement to seafarers' jobs?

It is absolutely vital that people are not forgotten in the scramble to bring smart ships onto the seas. The debate so far has concentrated too much on technological and economic factors. Properly introduced, automation and digital technologies could transform shipping in a positive way – making it more rewarding, healthier and safer and of course more efficient – but managed poorly, they could undermine safety and erode the essential base of maritime skills, knowledge and expertise. This is no knee-jerk opposition to automation, but rather a genuine desire to see it used in a way that improves the safety and efficiency of the shipping industry and the working lives of all within it.

Is gender diversity at sea a reality?

I think the industry understands that there is a problem in attracting women into considering careers in the maritime industry. Accepting this is the first step, but we must work together to address this. At Nautilus, we are keen to work to support female maritime professionals and encourage more women into the profession.

Through Maritime UK, we recently teamed up with almost 40 leading UK shipowners and maritime industry groups to launch a new initiative to increase the number of women in shipping, signing a pledge to improve fairness, equality and inclusion in the sector.

Women currently account for just three percent of the seafaring workforce, and we need to increase this. Given that many other similarly traditionally male-dominated industries have managed to turn this around, I see no reason why the maritime industry can’t as well. 

What does your role entail?

Nautilus International is a trade union for some 22,000 maritime professionals in the U.K., and our history of supporting seafarers can be traced back more than 160 years. We work trans-nationally across the U.K., the Netherlands and Switzerland. Providing a voice for members in the maritime industry, as well as being a traditional trade union working on behalf of our members, we are a campaigning organization raising awareness of the issues faced by all maritime and shipping professionals working at sea and ashore. 

I’ve been general secretary of the Union for nine years now, since the new union forged when Nautilus UK (NUMAST) and Nautilus Netherlands (FWZ) merged in 2009. I oversee the Union’s mission to be an independent, influential, global trade union and professional organization, committed to delivering high quality, cost effective services to members and welfare to seafarers and their dependants in need. 

This is a wide remit but includes lobbying the government and industry alike and working within the IMO, ILO and EU to improve the working lives of maritime and shipping professionals. Amongst other successes, our work over the past year has included securing improvements in pay and conditions for seafarers, influencing discussions at the highest level including the IMO and governments on issues that affect seafarers including, fatigue, maritime safety and connectivity for seafarers at sea. We also negotiate collective bargaining agreements to protect and enhance the working conditions of thousands of maritime and shipping professionals.  

What does the Merchant Naval Medal award mean to you?

It is a great honor to receive the medal, and I am humbled by the support I’ve received from both my colleagues and peers across the industry. Whilst I’m delighted to be recognized alongside many esteemed recipients past and present, I want to show my appreciation for the support I’ve received from those I work with at Nautilus, our members and my family, who have all made significant contributions that made the award possible – without that support my mission is impossible.


Dickinson has spent over 40 years in the maritime industry, which began when he joined the British Merchant Navy as a Navigating Cadet in 1978 at the age of 16. In 1983, having secured his Officer of the Watch Certificate he moved ashore to study and gained a Bachelor of Science with honors in Maritime Studies from the University of Wales. In 1992, he gained a master's degree with distinction in Industrial Relations from the London School of Economics.

Dickinson joined Nautilus International in 2000 (then known as NUMAST) as an executive officer. He previously worked for the International Transport Workers' Federation (ITF) in two spells from 1987 to 1991 and 1992 to 2000, from 1995 he was the ITF's Assistant General Secretary with responsibility for maritime activities. During his time at both the ITF and Nautilus International, he was heavily involved in the development of the Maritime Labour Convention.

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.