Winning on the waterways

30 October 2018

The Nautilus Switzerland branch has seen increasing success over the last few years in protecting the 14,000 crew working throughout the booming European river cruise industry – despite the challenges presented by Swiss labour laws. DEBORAH MCPHERSON reports…

Many of the issues facing river cruise vessel crews will be all-too familiar to their fellow Union members in seagoing sectors: unacceptably low wages, excessive working hours, unpaid overtime and substandard working conditions, to name but a few.

And, as in deepsea shipping, wealthy western European operators often use flags of convenience and employ crew – particularly hotel and catering staff – from eastern Europe or SE Asia.

Nautilus is working with the European Transport Workers’ Federation to tackle these problems. ‘Our work over the last three years has really made a difference,’ says the Union’s Switzerland branch national secretary Holger Schatz. ‘We have encouraged members and non-members to stand up for their rights and go to court to claim missing overtime or unpaid overtime.’

Since 2015, Nautilus has conducted seven lawsuits in Swiss courts. One case resulted in a successful settlement of CHF15,000 (€13,160) in owed wages for a Bulgarian waiter in 2016 and another with a CHF25,000 payment for unfair dismissal. This year a jury also awarded two other waiters a settlement for unpaid overtime of CHF6,000 each.

Increased public awareness resulting from media coverage has put further pressure on vessel owners. ‘This consistent pressure is coming from all sides, but it would not have happened without the Nautilus Switzerland branch’s reports to Aquapol – and reports to police in neighbouring countries where labour laws are stronger – or without the cooperation of our partner trade unions in the campaign,’ said Mr Schatz.

Image: Nautilus national secretary Holger Schatz at the Port of Basel

‘The fact is that 70% of European river cruise crew work on Swiss-flagged vessels, and many of the poor working conditions are experienced in Switzerland, so where we are informed, we have an authentic overview of what is happening on the ground. Nautilus national secretary Holger Schatz

Nautilus has developed an effective strategy of giving reports to German police when unions find problems with unsafe manning, low wages and fatigue on river cruise vessels running on the Rhine and the Danube, Mr Schatz continued. ‘They have more effective labour laws and have the right to board vessels and demand to see working-hours evidence,’ he explained. ‘Swiss police won’t go to a Swiss-flagged ship in Cologne.’

Some cruise companies have launched their own counter-campaigns, such as a Bavarian company calling a press conference to dispute claims about poor working conditions on vessels arriving in the popular tourist town of Passau after the local council threatened to refuse berthing rights unless conditions improved. 

On the plus side, Mr Schatz said there are signs that some companies are now engaging with the Union. Meanwhile, Nautilus is stepping up its campaign efforts with the appointment of a new industrial organiser dedicated to the river cruise sector: Piet Dörflinger. His brief is to help to grow membership, improve working conditions and secure collective bargaining agreements in this growing industry.