New ILO Book Focuses on Women Seafarers

Monday, September 22, 2003
Women seafarers - a rare but growing cohort on the world's waterborne transportation fleet -- face inordinately tough working conditions including discrimination and sexual harassment as the maritime sector adjusts to the reality of women working alongside men, according to a new study just published by the International Labour Office (ILO). "The potential of women seafarers has, in general, attracted remarkably little attention from commentators and policy -makers", says a new study commissioned by the ILO. ( Women Seafarers - Global Employment policies and practices ) The study says women represent between 1 and 2 per cent of the world's 1.25 million seafarers serving on some 87,000 ships. The book, based on extensive interviews with ship owners, trade unions, maritime regulators and women seafarers, paints a grim picture of the struggle faced by women to gain employment and advancement but highlights the potential resource that women represent for the industry. Written by maritime experts from Seafarers International Research Centre for the ILO, examines regional variations in the employment of female seafarers and in the type of work they do. Although in some Scandinavian countries women make up more than ten percent of the seafaring workforce, figures for other European countries are negligible - in Italy women are only 1.2 per cent of the seafaring force, in Germany they make up 4.2 per cent, while the UK has 8.3 per cent. Outside Europe figures also vary: women make up 1.1 per cent of the Brazil's seafarers, and 5 per cent of Indonesia's. According to Fairplay in 1998, India reported only three women out of 43,000 registered seafarers; by the end of 2002 there were twelve. In the Philippines, the largest supplier of seafarers to the world merchant fleet, only 225 women out of 230,000 seafarers appear on the international seafarers' register for 1983-90. The bulk of women seafarers are concentrated in the hotel personnel of cruise ships, and these are mostly in rating grades. Only 7 per cent of women seafarers are officers and the rest (93 per cent) are ratings. By comparison, 42 per cent of male seafarers are officers and 58 per cent are ratings. And there are further anomalies in seafarers' employment. Currently, OECD countries recruit the largest proportion of women employed on cruise ships (51.2 per cent), followed by Eastern Europe (23.6 per cent), the Far East (13.7 per cent), Latin America and Africa (9.8 per cent) and South Asia and the Middle East (1.7 per cent). On the other hand, most male seafarers are recruited from the Far East (29.1 per cent), followed by 23.3 per cent from OECD countries, 17.8 per cent from Latin America and Africa, 12.3 per cent from Eastern Europe, 7.5 per cent from South Asia and the Middle East. The figures reflect the prevalence of entrenched attitudes regarding the abilities and characteristics of women, which pervade the industry at all levels and in all sectors, the study suggests. While some shipowners and managers with experience of employing women are very positive about their performance, as are instructors at training establishments, all too frequently what women face is sexism, intolerance and harassment. Even where employers and unions are relatively enlightened, many appear not to have made specific provision relating to the employment and conditions of work for women. For example, "company responses to staff becoming pregnant range from immediate dismissal to offers of alternative shore-side employment". The study highlights a need for policies addressing issues relating to sexual harassment, menstruation, pregnancy, contraception, maternity, and sexual and general medical health. Sexual harassment is a reality for many women in both the marine and hotel sectors, and the report contains some harrowing first hand accounts. On a more positive note, the study reveals significant progress in training policies over recent years. Women are also being trained to fill higher level positions in the maritime industry both afloat and ashore. For example, by 2001 the total number of female students at the World Maritime University (WMU) had risen to 21 per cent of the total university population compared to 8 per cent in 1995. The ILO study is based on a survey commissioned by the ILO following the resolution concerning women seafarers adopted by the 29th Session of the ILO/IMO Joint Maritime Commission, 22-26 Jan. 2001, in Geneva. The Resolution called for a more active role to be taken in promoting the integration of women in the industry. As a follow-up to the Resolution, the study identifies good practice and recommends measures that may further help the integration of women into shipboard communities.

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