The birth of a movement: 100 years of maritime regulation

22 June 2020

As the International Labour Organization celebrates its 100th anniversary, Nick Bramley looks back at the beginning of a great international movement to support seafarers and the birth of a system of tripartite regulation in maritime that is the envy of other industries

Shipping has a long history of multinational crewing – and it was 100 years ago that maritime unions, shipowners and government representatives sat down to discuss the first moves to regulate this globalised workforce, recognising that the international community of seafarers would be most effectively protected by a uniform law.

In the aftermath of the carnage of the First World War, there was a strong desire to build a better world – and it was those hopes that lay behind the creation, in 1919, of the International Labour Organization (ILO) as part of the Versailles peace treaty.

Founded on the premise that the League of Nations has for its object the establishment of universal peace, and such a peace can be established only if it is based upon social justice, the ILO sought to set global standards for working conditions that would, in turn, be incorporated into the national laws of member states.

Of particular and lasting value was the establishment of the tripartite principle in the workings of the ILO, with each delegation consisting of two government delegates and one each from workers' and employers' organisations.

The first ILO conference, held in Washington in October and November 1919, had agreed six conventions and six recommendations covering such things as hours of work, minimum working age, unemployment and maternity protection. However, there was a recognition that the shipping industry was a special case deserving special treatment, and the ILO decided to devote the whole of its second conference in the following year to maritime matters – most notably questions about the implementation at sea of the eight-hour day and 48-hour week, which had been adopted as the standard for industry ashore.

A spirited intervention by Herbert Warington Smyth, the South African government delegate, secured the inclusion of inland waterways in the conference agenda with the support of the Canadian and Finnish governments. Smyth, an RNR and RNVR officer in both world wars, had worked in Thailand and was the author of several books on river transport in South East Asia.

The maritime conference was convened at a time when the international seafarers' organisations were in a difficult position. There was still considerable antagonism between unions of different countries which had found themselves on opposite sides of merciless campaigns of submarine warfare and blockade. British, French and US seafaring unions – including the Nautilus predecessors Imperial Merchant Service Guild (IMSG) and Marine Engineers' Association – were even seeking 'full reparation and compensation' from their wartime enemies 'for the crimes committed on merchant seafarers of all classes'.

The International Transport Workers' Federation (ITF) had been reduced to inactivity during the war and had lost most of its seafarer affiliates to the International Seafarers' Federation (ISF) – led by Havelock Wilson, of the British ratings' union NSFU – amid concerns that it was either dominated by the interests of dockers or was too 'socialist'.

Officers' unions were in general not part of the ISF, and its umbrella organisation, the International Merchant Marine Officers' Association (IMMOA), was not established until 1925. As the United States didn't join the ILO until 1934, the voice of the US unions working in the world's second largest fleet was absent. Ironically, the chair of the Commission on International Labour Legislation at the Paris peace conference had been the legendary US union leader Samuel Gompers.

International Labour Organisation director Albert Thomas, third from left, is pictured with a group of shipowners at the maritime session in Genoa in 1920

It was against this background that the ISF convened a preparatory 'international conference of seafarers' in the Italian port city of Genoa from 11-14 June 1920 to make it possible for the world's merchant seafarers to present a solid front to the League of Nations meeting. At least in terms of representation, it was a success, with 75 delegates from Belgium, France, Germany, Gibraltar,

Greece, the Netherlands, Italy, Japan, Norway, Spain, Sweden and the UK, working under the chairmanship of Havelock Wilson. Unity was present as long as the discussions remained on the desirability of the eight-hour day. In fact, the conference united around a resolution calling not only for an eight-hour day but also for a 44-hour week, leaving free Saturday afternoons in port.

Delegates divided when discussions moved to a proposal from the International Seamen's Union of America (ISU). Fresh from the achievement of the US Seamen's Act of 1915 – which it regarded as 'the emancipation proclamation for seamen of the world' – as well as the signing into force of the Jones Act on 5 June 1920, the ISU sought support for the principle of seafarers being able to leave ship at any port of their choosing. This was opposed, among others, by IMSG general secretary Thomas Moore, and in a final vote, from which the officers' unions were excluded, the proposal was defeated.

When the ILO conference convened, 27 states were represented, of which 20 included seafarer delegates, either from maritime unions or national union confederations. The work was divided between five commissions dealing with:

  • working time
  • articles of agreement, hiring and unemployment
  • minimum age
  • an international seamen's code
  • inland navigation

Not surprisingly, the first commission generated the most discussion, and ultimately, the most disappointment for the seafarers. The unions held to their position that the general shore-based rule of an eight-hour day and a 48-hour week should also apply to seafarers. But the employers and some governments tried repeatedly to arrive at a formula which would dilute this principle, make longer hours possible and weaken the provisions proposed by the ILO. British owners, in particular, argued forcefully that regulating working hours at sea was impractical and that the sort of controls being put forward at the conference could 'set up a standard which, if attained, would ruin the shipping trade'.

Equally unsuccessful were the unions' attempts to introduce a 44-hour week as agreed at the earlier seafarers' conference. Attempts were also made to dilute the principle of universal application by making exemptions for Indian seafarers – a proposal made both by governments and representatives of Indian seafarers keen to maintain their position in the labour market. The final proposal was a special clause stipulating that the working hours of Indian seafarers should be subject to agreement between employers and the emergent Indian unions, but also aimed at a reduction of hours.

 Nevertheless, the commission's final draft reached broad agreement on:

  • a 48-hour week for all except for masters, supervising officers, wireless operators and cattlemen (the draft had foreseen a 56-hour week at sea and 48 hours in port)
  • a three-watch system for vessels over 2,000 tons (draft 2,500 tons)
  • maximum overtime of 14 hours per week or 60 hours per month to be compensated in pay or time off
  • a 45-hour week for ratings in port, with Saturday limited to five hours
  • a written statement of hours to be worked onboard and a reporting obligation of the flag state to the ILO

When this draft went to the vote on 10 July, the seafarers may have hoped for a breakthrough – indeed, the proposal won a clear majority of 48 to 25 with no abstentions. But according to the ILO constitution, a two-thirds majority was necessary – so the motion was lost by just 0.67%.

The governments who voted against were the UK, Denmark, Japan, Norway, Spain and Thailand, but it should be noted that the shipowners of Argentina, France and the Netherlands voted in favour.

The international regulation of working time would now have to wait until 1936 and the passing of Convention 57 on the hours of work and manning at sea.

The rest of the conference agenda met with more success and saw the adoption of three conventions enforceable after ratification and four recommendations, a weaker form of regulation.

The 1920 maritime session saw the adoption of the first ILO convention for shipping – covering the minimum age of seafarers

Convention 9 on establishing facilities for finding employment for seamen came into force in 1921, as did Convention 7, fixing the minimum age for admission of children to employment at sea, with Convention 8 on unemployment indemnity in case of loss or foundering of the ship following in 1923. All of these conventions ultimately found their way into the Maritime Labour Convention (MLC) of 2006, which united the provisions of 36 ILO conventions and one protocol adopted between 1920 and 1996.

As to the recommendations, which represented a weakening of the original intention of the ILO itself, two of them dealt with seafarers' matters. The original hope of drawing up an international seamen's code resulted merely in Recommendation 9, to draw together at a national level legislation relating to seafarers, and the aim of 1920 was first met with the MLC in 2006. Similarly, Recommendation 10 simply recommended to member states that they set up or support unemployment insurance schemes for seafarers.

The hopes for a binding instrument for inland navigation ended in Recommendation 8, which encouraged member states to establish a 48-hour week and eight-hour day in inland waterway transport. This remains the only ILO instrument for that sector.

In the course of the commission's deliberations, the members realised that the interests of fishers had been overlooked, and this resulted in Recommendation 7 on the hours of work in fishing, again recommending the eight-hour day and 48-hour week. This recommendation was withdrawn in 2018 after the entry into force of Convention 188 of 2007, which drew together the rights of fishers in a convention comparable to the MLC.

Looking back from a century later, we can see the beginning of a great international movement and the birth of a system of tripartite regulation in maritime that is the envy of other industries. The birth pains were not easy, with distrust, strong personalities, isolationist governments and imperial interests to be confronted. That the ITF and ISF found their way to each other in 1922 was an important step forward, and with the officers' IMMOA merging with the ITF in 1948 seafarers' interests could be finally represented by the solid front' which the ISF had propagated in 1920.


Become a Nautilus member today