A FEW rough years of supply-chain pressures, geopolitical tensions and crew-change chaos have taken a toll on seafarers, but they continue to keep up with the momentum of modern shipping. The ancient profession has been thrust into a sophisticated world of digitalisation, upskilling and handling new fuels. There have always been challenges at sea, but these challenges are new.

Every quarter the Mission to Seafarers publishes the results of a rolling survey on crew welfare. The so-called Seafarers Happiness Index asks seafarers a series of questions about their contact with family, access to shore leave, quality of food, crew interaction and other important elements of life on board.

The latest available data from the Seafarers Happiness Index report suggests crew satisfaction is tumbling again after a brief but promising uptick coming out of covid. In the third quarter of 2023 the biggest problem areas were workloads, connectivity and wages.


The International Transport Workers’ Federation has a global network of inspectors who visit ships to check that seafarers’ working conditions are safe and healthy. Ian Bray, co-ordinator of the ITF Australian Inspectorate, said the seafarers’ union has been sharpening its focus on wage issues and why some crewmembers are being underpaid.

In 2022 the ITF commissioned a report from the Centre for Future Work, an initiative of The Australian Institute. The report, Robbed at Sea, looked back on 10 years of ITF inspection records and estimated seafarers transiting Australian waters were being underpaid by an average of $65 million each year.

“That [report] became central to our work, how we applied our work, what our goals would be and what our strategy would become,” Mr Bray told DCN.

“It was quite prevalent in the recommendations of the Robbed at Sea report that we needed to embark on a lobbying campaign.”

In June 2023 the ITF Australian Inspectorate bolstered its six-person team with volunteers to increase the number of ships inspected in New South Wales’ ports. The inspectorate routinely carries out spot-checks on international vessels visiting Australian waters, but over a week last year (13 to 20 June), the Nowhere to Hide campaign set out to inspect every ship calling the state’s ports.

“We specifically started to target areas where the ITF had not looked historically,” Mr Bray said.

Among those areas were regulatory loopholes and issues with understanding legislation. According to a December 2023 report by Mr Bray, the week of action identified US$4.5 million in unpaid wages, which is equal to about $6.8 million. That figure included underpayment of US$3 million (about $4.5 million) in Australian industry award payments on ships licensed to engage in coastal trading.

After the success of the New South Wales round, ITF launched another week of action in November across South Australian, Victorian and Tasmanian ports. The ITF and campaign participants carried out 74 inspections between 19 and 25 November. They identified US$5.4 million in unpaid wages ($8.2 million) including underpayment of US$4.2 million ($6.4 million) in Australian seagoing industry award payments on ships with a temporary license to engage in coastal trading.

The source of the issue appears to be breaches of the Maritime Labour Convention and of Australian law, according to Mr Bray. “We’re very, very mindful that we have to have a [wholistic] approach to what we’re doing at the moment and what we’re seeking to achieve.”


Mr Bray said the ITF Australian Inspectorate identified and recovered US$19,924,658 (almost $30.2 million) from 650 inspections in the 2023 calendar year. Wages recovered during the two weeks of action accounted for half of the year’s total.

Mr Bray said the figures prove that the campaign is working.

“It shows that when we target specifically and intensify what we’re looking for, there are results,” he said.

Mr Bray said about half of the unpaid wages were a result of non-compliance with Australia’s current legislative provisions in accordance with the Coastal Trading (Revitalising Australian Shipping) Act 2012 and the Fair Work Act 2009. The other half he attributed to avoidance or underpayments of seafarers’ employment contracts, in breach of the Maritime Labour Convention.

The Centre for Future Work has said that a foreign-flagged ship falls under the Fair Work Act only when it undertakes coastal trading voyages authorised by a temporary licence, creating a gap in the enforcement of Australian labour standards in the coastal trade. It says that under a temporary licence, Australian employment conditions from the Fair Work Act and the seagoing industry award do not come into force until a ship has made at least two other interstate voyages to Australian ports in the previous 12 months.

While undertaking those first two interstate port calls, the centre explained, the international standard applies – in which case seafarers’ conditions must satisfy the minimum MLC standards, rather than Australian standards.

Mr Bray said wage issues linked to regulation and legislation often come down to honest misunderstandings – a lack of awareness around correct wage calculations rather than deliberate underpayment.

“It’s not because the employers are doing the wrong thing; it’s because they don’t understand the calculations and the formula that’s set out in the award,” he said.

“And [when] even the employers that have done the right thing have underpaid because they’ve miscalculated, there’s potentially billions of dollars in unpaid wages in the maritime sector.”


To alleviate the confusion, Mr Bray and the ITF inspectorate have suggested development of a calculation tool to supplement the Fair Work Ombudsman’s existing Pay Guide – Seagoing Industry Award. They also recommend publication of a step-by-step guide to how the Australian seagoing industry award is to be paid.

But miscalculations aren’t always an accident, according to Mr Bray. He said there are still “recalcitrant employers” who may exploit the loopholes.

“[They] just think they can do what they like and not abide by Australian law, because they’re a foreign entity,” Mr Bray said.

“We’ve got a major problem with the legislation, and this needs to be seriously looked at.”

Mr Bray said the starting point should be education and awareness around wage calculations, and potentially self-auditing and self-reporting to avoid the legal system in the first place. The next steps are to eliminate confusion from the Coastal Trading Act and review the Navigation Act.

“When the Navigation Act was rewritten in 2012 and superseded the Navigation Act 1912, there was a little clause in the 1912 Navigation Act that dropped away in the rewrite,” Mr Bray said.

“That was associated with the clearance of a ship for an international voyage, where a customs officer had the power to not clear a vessel for an international voyage if they were satisfied that the wages hadn’t been paid.

“That needs to be reinserted in the 2012 Navigation Act, because that is the key criteria to avoiding a litany of legal challenges, prosecutions, offences etcetera … and then the customs officer has the power not to clear the ship on its voyage of departure from Australia.

“This campaign has identified that is a gap that needs to be fixed. Because we can deal with the customs, the employer and the charterer, where we suspect that wages haven’t been paid, and it will be fixed and remedied before that ship departs port. It is one of the single most important and valuable tools we can reinsert to stamp out and go a large way to eradicating the wage theft in the maritime industry.”


The Maritime Union of New Zealand had sent a delegation of ITF volunteers to Australia to participate in November’s week of action. At the end of the week, the Australian inspectorate announced it would expand the Nowhere to Hide campaign to include New Zealand ports.

“In 2024 we’ll look for more efficiency and more co-operation particularly across the Tasman, but also, one of the things we’re thinking about is bringing in the rest of the global inspectorate,” he said.

Mr Bray said the Australian campaign received worldwide attention and other countries are hoping to emulate it. Those in the Commonwealth have expressed the most interest so far because they have an interest in their own navigation acts.

“People should be going back through their own coastal trading acts and various cabotage pieces to see what powers they’ve got in their own legislation,” Mr Bray said.

He said the two weeks of action had exposed international inspectors to how setting up a volunteer network could take inspections to the next level.

“We spent the bulk of 2022 training up roughly 200 individuals, and they’re just gobsmacked by it. They just say, ‘This is what needs to go on’. This is where all inspectors could get more effective if they had eyes and ears across all of their ports through a volunteer program.”

Mr Bray said the findings of the campaign showed the ITF how much work is needed going forward.

“We think we’ve also gone a long way to not only identifying the problems, but identifying the potential solutions, and that’s important.

“The highlight, of course, is we’ve had a lot of fun. It’s been very, very hard work, and that’s why I guess I put fun at the top of it – we would have all been driven mad if it was all serious.”


Along with wage issues, the ITF is targeting refusal of shore leave, failure to repatriate seafarers to their countries of origin, denial of medical care and bullying and harassment.

Although repatriation has improved since the height of the pandemic – when seafarers were unable to leave their ships due to border closures and other restrictions – the ITF is drilling down into cases of seafarers still struggling to return home at the end of their contracts. The Maritime Labour Convention stipulates that seafarers should not serve on board without leave for longer than 11 months at a time.

Mr Bray believes this period is still too long, and that some employers are pushing for seafarers to keep working beyond shorter contracts. He used the example of a seafarer on a nine-month contract with an employer who wants them to work for 10 months.

“It’s common sense; don’t you think they’ve had enough after nine months? And don’t you think it’s time to go home and see your family? It should be six months; you know what I mean? It should be four months. It’s a hell of a long time to be away.”

Other areas of concern overlap with those outlined in the Seafarers Happiness Index, such as food standards. The ITF inspectorate has also found the quality of food has deteriorated.

“I think for the first two years [of the pandemic] everyone was getting fed well, because they were stuck on board, and they couldn’t get on or off the ship. So, I think the compensation was to feed them properly. But now we’re seeing as slight and gradual decline in the quality and quantity of the food.

“I think the cost of living and the price of food is having an impact, but it doesn’t mean that you get to cut the quantity, and certainly the quality of food, just because it’s more expensive. People still have to eat.”

Another ongoing issue is seafarers’ rights to medical treatment. Mr Bray said the various restrictions in recent years made it easier to get away with denying proper medical attention to crews – he noted Australia alone had several different health orders which varied from state to state.

“If people are injured, they genuinely need to seek medical attention before it gets worse and before other complications [arise], like infections,” he said.

“The welfare side is just an ongoing challenge and requires all aspects of mental health, wellbeing, health, physical injury, safe practices, those types of things. We’ll continue to have a look at them as we always do.

“I think we can get some good outcomes and make the lives of seafarers coming to Australia at least a little bit better.”

This feature article appeared in the February 2024 edition of DCN Magazine