Nautilus has expressed grave concerns over news that a cruise operator is offering British officers salaries below the UK minimum wage – exploiting highly-qualified seafarers, encouraging social dumping and undermining hard-won gains in pay and conditions. It’s time to get behind the Union’s Fair Pay at Sea campaign and stamp out these practices, writes Helen Kelly
A recent social media furore over low pay in the cruise sector has lifted the lid on exploitative practices employed by global operators to drive down wages and conditions for newly-qualified British and European officers.
Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines (RCCL), the world's second largest cruise operator in terms of revenue, is advertising third officer positions on its Royal Caribbean International (RCI) fleet for as little as $2,000 (£1,541) per month or $16,000 (£12,358) per year for a 4:2 rotation.
That equates to an approximate hourly salary of £4.28 – less than the UK National Minimum Wage for young people under the age of 18 (£4.35) and significantly less than that for 18-20 year-olds (£6.15).
The role and others aboard RCCL's brands Azamara and Celebrity Cruises are being promoted by UK-based recruitment agency Faststream via email to British and European seafarers.
The successful candidate is expected to have experience in rank on any type of passenger vessel, an Officer of the Watch CoC unlimited, and the right to live and work in the European Union. That means they will have completed three years' study and work as a cadet at a reputable British or mainland European training facility.
Once onboard they can expect to work 12 hours per day. Third officers with RCI do not get paid for shore leave.
Nautilus International general secretary Mark Dickinson strongly criticised RCCL for exploiting newly-qualified third officers and introducing a race to the bottom on crew wages.
'There is no future for an industry which keeps scouring the world for the next source of cheap labour,' he said. 'The future should be one of high quality and respect.'
The Union recently launched its Fair Pay at Sea campaign to achieve decent treatment for members and all seafarers, including legislation that sets minimum wages in national waters.
Nautilus is also working with The European Transport Workers’ Federation (ETF) to introduce a minimum wage for seafarers in Europe. Such legislation would prevent social dumping in the UK and Europe – a practice where employers use cheaper labour than what is available domestically, such as employing migrant workers or moving production to a low-wage country or area.
Nautilus believes the advertised RCCL third officer roles are a clear case of social dumping. and comments by Faststream chief executive Mark Charman seem to back this up.
Mr Charman told the Nautilus Telegraph that UK nationals were not in fact the target audience for the position, despite being actively marketed to via email and its website.
'Based on our experiences, the applicants applying for these jobs, and the applicants we have placed into these jobs, these are not UK nationals,' he said.
Representatives from RCCL and all its brands were unavailable for comment despite repeated attempts by the Nautilus Telegraph.
There are some basic rules of play that we must insist on. Our social conditions. Our environmental standards. Our safety and health standards Mark Dickinson, general secretary Nautilus International
Hiding behind the flag
RCI is based in Miami, Florida, and its vessels use the Bahamas flag of convenience, which requires it to pay crew minimum salaries as set by the ITF/International Labour Organisation (ILO). The current ITF/ILO third officer minimum wage is $1,822 per month.
RCCL brand Celebrity Cruises also advertises third officer jobs for $2,000 per month. Its 'upmarket' Azamara brand advertises the same position for $2,700 per month. Both brands use the Malta flag.
Nautilus's position on ILO minimum wage standards has always been that quality ship operators should be paying well above these absolute minimum levels, and that they should not be used to drive wages down.
Nautilus does not have a recognition agreement/collective bargaining agreement with parent company Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines (RCCL) or any of its cruise brands RCI, Celebrity Cruises and Azamara.
While RCCL is not doing anything illegal by paying third officers at just above the agreed international minimum, many Nautilus members and other seafarers who shared their views on social media found the company’s actions to be exploitative and morally questionable. Some felt the cruise industry as a whole promoted a glamorous image that hid the reality of pay and working conditions for crew.
'I don't doubt that by the moral definition there is a level of exploitation going on of junior seafarers,' said Nick Chubb, founder of maritime technology consultancy Thetius.
Mr Chubb is the author of the hard-hitting blog-post on Splash247 titled 'Why are third officers being paid less than coffee shop workers?' which sparked the social media uproar.
The Nautilus Telegraph has been told of at least one British third officer who took a position with RCCL brand Celebrity Cruises at $2,000 per month, desperate to find work after being unemployed for many months. Having completed two rotations, he is now working for a rival UK based company at a much higher salary.
A Nautilus International member who holds a Master Mariner Unlimited certificate, was approached by Faststream about the RCI role and found the level of pay and conditions insulting.
'When you consider most companies now pay at home too or compensate for leave period in the wage paid onboard, plus considering you work seven days a week, 10 hours a day, the pay is still an insult to anyone who has worked hard to get their Officer of the Watch,’ the member said requesting anonymity. ‘Yet at the same time I feel concerned that people are working for that, with a job that holds a lot of responsibility.'
Nautilus member and UK resident Bradley Jones felt that RCCL was taking advantage of newly qualified Third Officers who may be struggling to find work.
'There is still a clear disconnect and divide between the value put on serving seafarers, especially those with watchkeeping duties, and the pay and conditions we are offered,' he said.
'When you actually put pen to paper and weigh up the pay and conditions against the responsibility the individual who takes up this post is duty bound to carry out it's actually very insulting.'
Another member, who asked not to be named for fear of career reprisals, felt that the job ad was discriminating against British nationals.
'This really is infuriating. They aren't allowed to discriminate by nationality, but this is the most obvious loophole, and yet no one will do anything about it.'
Fair Pay at Sea
As well as tackling the social dumping practices described above, the Nautilus Fair Pay at Sea campaign will also target known scams by unscrupulous operators who seek to undermine ITF/ILO agreed minimum rates by creating new subordinate ranks aboard vessels.
On some vessels, traditional third officer jobs are being redefined as 'junior officer' roles with a much lower rate of pay. Junior officer is a generic term descriptive term used for third officers. There is no officially recognised rank of Junior Officer.
A similar scam is happening with the traditional AB role. Dishonest ship operators are redefining that role, which is already one of the most poorly paid onboard, as a 'catering boy' in order to cut wages further.
That situation is clearly not sustainable.
'Ultimately, we think the solution is to swim completely against the tide of Reaganite and Thatcherite neo-liberalism which has served hard-working seafarers so poorly, and insist that in the UK and Europe, shipping is regulated to our standards,' Mr Dickinson said.
'We're not closing the sector down. Please bring your cruise ships, your ferries and your shortsea vessels. But here are some basic rules of play that we insist on, that we will regulate. Our social conditions. Our environmental standards. Our safety and health standards.
'It's social standards that we can't accept to be regulated to the minimum.'
- Members affected by any of these issues are advised to get in contact with the Union.