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Saturday, February 14, 2009

Women At the Helm, Literally Miren Gutierrez* interviews SARAH FINKE

Shipping used to be for men. Now women are starting to be seen commanding merchant vessels, oil tankers and cruisers, "manning" ships and operating liner engines.

In an e-mail interview with IPS, Sarah Finke - the Women's Officer at the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) - discusses some of the challenges faced by women on ships, and the role of unions in this tough sector. The ITF includes 654 unions representing about 4.5 million transport workers in 148 countries.

IPS: The ITF says "millions of women work in the transport industry world-wide". How many of these are in the maritime sector?

Sarah Finke: We estimate that there are around 23,000 women seafarers worldwide, representing a low 2 percent of the total workforce, and clustered disproportionately in the ferry and cruise sectors, and in service roles. The total number is slowly increasing, as is women’s representation in the ranks of ships’ officers and masters. But it is an unacceptably slow process, and one that trade unions have to lead and drag forward.

IPS: Which countries ‘produce’ more women seafarers?

SF: It largely shadows the situation for men, with the Philippines and Indonesia (the biggest seafaring nations in the world) ranking highest, but also with significant numbers of Eastern Europeans, which reflects that region's history of cruising and cruise fleets.

IPS: In 2005, at a conference in Rio de Janeiro, a group of 40 female seafarers called for greater attention to job prospects for women and discrimination. "Sexual harassment is a reality for many women at sea," says a recent International Labour Organisation (ILO) report. Has anything changed?

SF: It will take a new research project to establish an improvement on the ground, but there are hopeful signs. Positive measures on bullying and harassment have been introduced by European ship owners and by unions in the European Transport Workers' Federation, the ITF’s European arm. There has also been real campaigning by our affiliated unions for equality and against violence towards women.


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