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Women seafarers: Fighting against the tide?

Article | 16 October 2003

GENEVA (ILO Online) - Women seafarers - a determined minority in the world's waterborne transportation fleet - frequently 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).

According to the new study *,"the potential of women seafarers has, in general, attracted remarkably little attention from commentators and policy-makers". It 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, depicts the struggle faced by women to gain employment and advancement and highlights the potential resource that women represent for the industry. Written by maritime experts from Seafarers International Research Centre (SIRC) for the ILO, it examines regional variations in the employment of female seafarers and in the type of work they do.

"Our organisation is very serious about gender issues and takes them into account in all areas of our work", says Brandt Wagner, a Maritime Specialist at the ILO."Thus, when we commissioned SIRC to undertake a study on conditions of work of seafarers as the main discussion document for a meeting of the ILO Joint Maritime Commission (JMC) in 2001, we asked that the study include a gender perspective. The JMC discussed the report and went a step further by adopting a resolution calling for a specific study on women seafarers. I believe this demonstrates that efforts to "mainstream" gender throughout an organization's work, can lead to solid and useful results."

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 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 women face sexism, intolerance and harassment.

Among the people who answered the authors' survey is a European shipowner with a fleet of more than 30 ships, mostly container vessels, who was full of praise for the female seafarers he works with, "The women are more alert. I hate to say they are more intelligent, because I don't make them do intelligence tests, but I see them as more engaged. With male masters, you do have good ones - some average and some even perhaps a little below average - but you employ them and they run the ships satisfactorily. But then maybe you have a special ship and you're a little bit afraid to put them there - but the women, they're above average."

Regrettably, it is more likely that women seafarers face colleagues uncomfortable with their presence on board: "There are generally two types of guys. One expects more because they say, 'Women can't work on board. ' And if you make one mistake, they say, 'OK, I knew it, I knew it .Now you see, she's not capable.' And then there is the other type. If you do something absolutely normal, like hammer in a nail*they say, 'Oh my God, great. You can do it. I knew it. Fantastic."

Women have to face not only constant scrutiny of their work, but unwarranted levels of sexual harassment and innuendo. This applies to women in both the marine and hotel sectors, and the report contains some harrowing first-hand accounts. Women have to get tough to deal with the unwanted attention," There was some problem with the chief officer*. he couldn't understand that I wanted to be alone during the night, and one evening I had to punch him to get him out of my room."

Many employers and unions 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.

The report also examines the tribulations women face in obtaining and completing training and proving themselves once employed. The comments recorded range from: "I get a lot of '"Why does a woman want to become an engineer? It's a filthy dirty job. Why does a woman want to do that? She doesn't want to get dirt under her nails'. They couldn't see how a woman would want to do that." Female cadets questioned in one focus group were very forgiving about the attitudes of some of their male lecturers: "You accept that most of the lecturers left sea before women really started going to sea.They don't know what it is like for us."

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 hopes that this work will improve the understanding of the issues faced by women seafarers employed at sea and, by doing so, improve their conditions of work and contribute to increased participation by women in the maritime sector", said Mr. Wagner. "Such increased participation will be of great benefit to women and to the maritime sector as a whole".

Women Seafarers - Global Employment policies and practices, International Labour Office, 2003, ISBN 92-2-113491-1.
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