by Douglas B. Stevenson, Esq.
Director, Center for Seafarers' Rights
The Seamen's Church Institute
Your most important document relating to your employment is your contract. Seafarers’ employment contracts are sometimes called “shipping articles” or “articles”. They establish your rights to be paid wages, the duration of employment and many other basic terms of employment.
Maritime law has for centuries required all seafarers’ employment contracts to be in writing. As early as 1729, English statutes have required seafarers’ employment contracts to be in writing. This requirement is found in most maritime nations’ laws and in the international standards contained in the International Labor Organization Convention Concerning Seamen’s Articles of Agreement (ILO-22).
Even though contracts must be in writing, there is no standard employment agreement that is required for all seafarers. Contracts can vary greatly in their form and content. Some common types of contracts for seafarers include:
- Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA). These are contracts that are negotiated between a ship owner and a trade union on behalf of a group of seafarers. They are sometimes called union contracts. CBA’s usually determine wages and conditions for all of the seafarers represented by the union on a particular ship or employed by a particular shipping company.
- Total Crew Cost Agreement (TCC). TCC contracts are collective bargaining agreements that are approved by ITF affiliate unions. Although TCC agreements may be different from each other, all of them must meet minimum ITF standards. Wage rates in TCC agreements are usually lower than those in the ITF Standard Agreement.
- ITF Standard Agreement. This agreement sets standards for contracts on flag of convenience vessels that are subject to ITF industrial actions. It is not normally applied to national flag vessels, nor to ships that have TCC agreements. The ITF Standard Agreement terms are higher than those in TCC agreements because the ITF wishes to encourage ship owners to negotiate TCC agreements without having to resort to industrial actions, like strikes. According to ITF policy, TCC agreements are not normally available to ships involved in industrial actions.
- POEA Standard Agreement. The Philippines Overseas Employment Administration has minimum standards for contracts for Filipino seafarers working overseas on ocean-going vessels. These standards are contained in the POEA Standard Terms and Conditions Governing the Employment of Filipino Seafarers On-Board Ocean-Going Vessels. These standards, commonly called the POEA Standard Agreement, form the basis for most Filipino seafarers’ contracts.
You should not assume that your employment terms are determined by such a “collective” or “standard” agreement. The contract that determines your employment terms is the one that you have signed or that has been signed on your behalf. Most of the questions that I receive from seafarers regarding their employment can be answered by reading their contracts. You can help yourself avoid problems by:
- Insist on a written contract. You have the right to have one. A written contract provides definite terms that can be enforced. Oral agreements are difficult to prove.
- Try to get a CBA. A CBA usually contains better terms than an individual contract.
- Read and understand your contract before signing it: You have the right to understand your contract before you sign it. You have the right to have your contract explained to you and to have a representative help you understand it.
- Do not sign blank contracts. All terms, especially your wages should be filled in.
- Do not sign secret contracts. Secret contracts are designed to cheat someone, and that someone is probably you.
- Do not assume contract terms. Your terms of employment are the ones contained in your contract. The terms that you or a friend had in a previous contract may not be contained in your present contract.
- When in doubt, read your contract again.