Speech by Mark Dickinson, general secretary Nautilus International, at the Union's General Meeting in October 2019.

Check against delivery


We live in truly turbulent times. Disruption is the name of the game as technology transforms our world and populist politics shatter the certainties that consensus used to deliver.

Shipping, as ever, is at the centre of the storm. The industry is at the heart of our globalised just-in-time economy. Every hour of every day, thousands of merchant ships are on the oceans, connecting countriejs and keeping trade moving.

But while the industry’s importance remains unchanged, the way it works – and the ways in which its people work – are facing fundamental change.

No one and no organisation is immune from processes which are radically reshaping our lives. And it is essential that we are all alive and aware of the challenges this creates. For Nautilus International, we've worked long and hard on our Strategic Plan and our 2030 Vision – putting proactive policies in place to ensure that we remain relevant, responsive and, above all, financially sustainable and viable for the future.

We've set aside this section of our General Meeting to consider the wider context around that vision – with our esteemed colleagues Steve Cotton and Cleopatra Doumbia-Henry providing some high-level insight into the trends that are affecting our industry.

As key figures behind the International Transport Workers' Federation and World Maritime University report bearing the not-so snappy title Transport 2040: Automation Technology Employment - the Future of Work, who better to have to share thoughts on the best way to build a better life for seafarers?

If you haven’t read it – and you should – the report is the fruit of a two-year project to analyse automation trends in transport and assess their impact on workers. Spoiler alert: it concludes that the introduction of automation in global transport will be evolutionary rather than revolutionary. And, for the foreseeable future, automation will not put an end to the need for qualified people with the right skillsets.

However, I think there is also a 'double-D' - digitalisation and decarbonisation - which are serving as the key drivers of change.

Modern merchant ships are increasingly crammed with sensors generating vast volumes of data. We're already witnessing the way in which this has resulted in the created of shore-based fleet operations centres, with vessel operations, courses, positions, manoeuvres, fuel consumption and speeds being increasingly monitored and controlled on land.

We're starting to see the use of artificial intelligence to assist with onboard decision-making, we’ve already seen Svitzer demonstrate the first remotely-operated tug in Copenhagen harbour and Wartsila take control of an offshore support vessel off the coast of Scotland from a base in San Diego, and we’re soon to see the launch of the first regular autonomous shipping service.

At the same time, the shipping industry faces unprecedented pressure to clean up its environmental credentials. Whilst it can rightly claim to be the most energy-efficient means of moving freight around the world, there’s no denying that the shipping industry creates as much carbon emissions than most countries, with much of the fleet running on fuel that produces damaging levels of pollution and damages the health of seafarers and port communities.

So, no surprise that the IMO is pressing on with programmes to slash shipping emissions. However, we've already seen how new fuels and new propulsion technologies create a demand for new skills.

In the same way, the industry's new technologies need to be firmly rooted in maritime expertise. We've heard much since our last General Meeting in 2015 about the rise of robo-ships, but there’s a real risk that the human element has been overlooked in the relentless march towards autonomous vessels.

As the Nautilus Federation research showed, there's a need for caution over the siren voices of the manufacturers. Whilst technology can – and should – improve safety and ease some of the excessive working pressures faced by many seafarers, we need to guard against the unthinking adoption of immature technology. There are too many examples of new technology and new systems being introduced with insufficient training or inadequate attention to the human-machine interface.

It's certainly clear that automation has already resulted in dramatic changes to seafaring – not just the huge reductions in crewing levels over the past half-century, but also sweeping shifts in shipboard organisation. With the remarkable exponential growth of processing power and ever-more complex computing systems, we can be sure that the next half-century will witness even more.

But let's not forget that there will always be a requirement for human interaction at some stage. The potential of new technologies to transform shipping has long been clear, but the challenge has always been how to realise this potential in an infrastructure-intensive industry, where redesigning or retrofitting ships and ports can take years and cost huge amounts.

For the foreseeable future - and until the many legal, commercial and operational obstacles to autonomous shipping are overcome - I would argue that it’s more likely that we will see the gradual introduction of so-called 'smart ships' with increased levels of decision-making assistance provided by onboard systems.

Our challenge, therefore, is to ensure that technology is used in a way that benefits everyone – not just a narrow section of the industry. There are too many worrying examples from other sectors where technology and monitoring and benchmarking systems are used as a stick with which to create new pressures on workers.

We must also ensure that skills keep pace with emerging technology. There's a major challenge to ensure the continuous development required to match new systems. And, it has to be said, shipping hasn't got the best of records in providing the necessary training to its workers.

To be fair, predicting future skills needs is not an easy task. And the need to invest in state-of-the-art training systems and technology presents some major challenges to our maritime colleges – not least the scale of investment required.

As we move down the path of this new industrial revolution, we also need to find ways to make sure that digitalisation and automation create meaningful and improved work for seafarers – giving the opportunity to provide a properly diverse and modern workforce.

However, our industry's future is shaped not just by technology but also by ever-more volatile geo-politics. Shipping has always suffered from boom and bust, and we need to beware of the way in which trade conflict between leading nations poses serious consequences for economic growth and global trade.

Just when you thought austerity was over and the downturn had become an upturn, uncertainty comes at us from all sides. Disruption is not just a technological term.

Too often, technological change is presented solely from an economic focus. But if the narrative continues to ignore its impact on people, there’s a danger that further damage will be done to the maritime profession - and especially if that is combined with another slump in shipping markets.

Our task, therefore, is to defend the maritime profession against disruptive forces. It is to make sure that equal priority is placed on the continuing need to attract, train, educate and retain the maritime professionals that we need, now and into the brave new world.

And in doing that, we need to reinforce some of our long-standing campaigns to combat the problems that undermine recruitment and retention. If we are to secure the bright young people we need, the industry has to offer more opportunities for them to begin their careers as a cadet or trainee.

We must address the image problem the industry has inflicted upon itself by constant cost-cutting and a seeming disregard for many accepted standards. We must resolve the seemingly perennial problems of criminalisation, fatigue, poor connectivity and the denial of shore leave.

It still seems that shipping hits the headlines only for the wrong reasons - accidents, hijackings, piracy, abandonments and detentions. It’s depressing that an industry which supplies the world with food, fuel and goods is all-too often seen as one which is built upon the very worst abuses and exploitation of its workforce.

So, from a union standpoint there is every reason to maintain our long-standing strategies to provide maritime professionals with the respect and fair treatment that they deserve.

In this increasingly uncertain world, there are some values which remain constant.

Whilst many of the dark satanic mills on land might now be luxury loft apartments, there’s still a stark - and growing - gap between the haves and the have-nots. A growing sense of grievance cuts across countries and cuts across industries. Sadly, however, the decline in trade union densities means that many of the workers most exposed to exploitation, casualisation, low-pay and uncertain employment are least likely to have the support of a union behind them.

At Nautilus, we're working hard to continue providing that protection for maritime professionals, with our 2030 Vision setting out new ways of working, new ways of organising, new ways of campaigning, and new ways of servicing our members that demonstrate our continued relevance in the 21st century.

We've sought to keep our organisation at the cutting edge, responding to globalisation’s challenges with the Nautilus Federation of like-minded unions providing a worldwide network of cooperation and collaboration.

We look to the future with optimism, grounded in the belief that we have set a sustainable strategy, with a set of ambitions that more than match the scale of the challenges ahead.

Colleagues, Nautilus faces a double whammy. The demographics of our membership mean that income from membership subscriptions is failing to match the union's outgoings. And things could get worse. Around one-third of our current members are due to reach retirement age over the next decade. The numbers coming into the industry are falling well short of the numbers leaving. It’s very clear that we can’t continue as we are. If that sounds stark, it’s meant to. But it’s not all doom and gloom.

The Council, your Council, has been working on a far-sighted vision for the future – a radical plan that will ensure Nautilus International continues as a strong, independent, professional organisation spearheading the struggle to secure decent work, fair pay and high standards in the maritime industry.

Our mission is clear – we aim to retain our influence, to be a global maritime trade union, committed to delivering the very best services and benefits for our members. We are clear about our aims and objectives to organise, provide high-quality cost-effective services, and welfare, and to be independent and viable.

We are an organising union but we are also proud of the unrivalled range of benefits and services that we provide and we will always put our members’ needs first. It is important we do not lose sight of this.

Of course, we're not alone is facing these challenges. Trade union membership levels have been in drastic decline throughout Europe for several decades.  We’ve done incredibly well to retain membership densities that most unions would kill for. And we’ve worked hard to develop new areas of membership, in sectors such as superyachts and offshore renewables.

But the shipping industry’s continued drift to low-cost labour-supplying countries and its failure to invest in the skills it undoubtedly needs for the future leaves us with a growing gap in the budget. We simply cannot afford to stand still.  The risks are real and require a considered response.

The 2030 Vision incorporated in the Strategic Plan is that considered response – a positive vision for the future based not on fear of the unknown, but a clear track of hope.

Because we don't just face risks and challenges, we also face opportunities. And we are determined to seize them, with a step change in the services and benefits that we offer members and in the organising activities that we undertake for them.

Our 2030 Vision will redouble our recruitment efforts, continuing our growth in the superyacht and windfarm sectors, opening up the potential in inland waterways and seizing the opportunities offered in fishing, through the new ILO Convention 188.

Our 2030 Vision will transform the way we work - with Nautilus 2.0 being an action-focused, modern and dynamic union, driven by a clear organising strategy, being prepared to innovative, be creative and, above all, proactive.

The Strategic Plan before you has been carefully crafted to ensure that we secure financial sustainability. We will drive efficiency and savings through economies of scale – sharing costs with other like-minded organisations, consolidating our operations and collaborating with others in partnership wherever we can.

The Nautilus Federation has paved the way in showing how ground-breaking cooperation can provide vital legal support to maritime professionals across the globe. We should seek to extend that cooperation nationally – perhaps by participating in 'union hubs', sharing back office facilities and working together to deliver innovative new services.

We will challenge all our working methodologies and deliver the Occupational Change Programme to ensure our staff and the organisation are fit for the future. We will set out a clear strategy for succession planning, replacing key staff due to retire over the next decade.

We will seek efficiencies by reducing the London head office to a core team, consolidating office space in at Wallasey, in collaboration with the Nautilus Welfare Fund. And we will explore suitable and similar arrangements In Rotterdam.

We will continue to develop the Nautilus Federation and seek to work more closely with the FNV in the Netherlands.

We have modernised the Rulebook and have reduced the costs of governance, whilst remaining a democratic organisation with full accountability to our members.

Indeed, the 2030 Vision seeks to exploit technology to connect with members in new and exciting ways. We aim to continue developing the award-winning website as a key component in the delivery of services to members and to develop a digital platform focused on our young maritime professionals. Designed and developed for them and by them, it should capture their aspirations. It must be true to our trade union and professional values and aim to be a knowledge hub, supporting young maritime professionals in their careers.

And, of course, we’ll stay true to our long and proud traditions of providing vital welfare support for members in need, continuing to develop the facilities at Mariners' Park in partnership with the Nautilus Welfare Fund.

Colleagues, central to the 2030 Vision is the need be more effeminate and costs effective – put plainly its about reducing costs. But it is not about reducing support for members.

Financial challenges may have been the trigger to initiate the review, but the resulting assessments and detailed discussions have revealed opportunities as well as challenges. This is a strategy that seeks to ensure we make the most of those opportunities.

Colleagues, it's clear that the time for change is now. We have no option but to embrace it, to shape our future whilst we are still in control of our destiny. We cannot sit back and be overwhelmed by events.

This is our blueprint for the future - a sustainable future that ensures that the scale of the challenges faced by Nautilus is matched by the scale of its ambition.


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