Two strands of technological innovation in shipping present conflicting challenges for shipping’s biggest labour union.

The International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) hopes the drive for greater efficiency and autonomous technology on board ships does not clash with greater demands on crews in shipping’s energy transition.

Decarbonisation leads to the need for a shipboard labour force with the technical competence to operate ships in a world with a variety of fuelling options.

In its calls for a “just transition”, the ITF wants a commitment to safe operational crewing levels on ships, arguing that where technology brings efficiencies, those deficiencies must be shared with the workforce through safer practices on board.

Fabrizio Barcellona, the seafarers’ and inland navigation section coordinator for the union, said ensuring safe numbers of crew on board vessels goes beyond regulatory requirements for what is described as “safe manning”.

“We all know that if the crew were there to move a ship from point A to point B, we would need a certain number of crew but, because of the need to repair, maintain and perform commercial operations, [it] would [mean] additional crew [are needed],” he said.

“That will remain our goal in the future, just to make sure a reduction that we see today in safety manning doesn’t then impact on the operational crewing of the ship.”

The union also insists that shipping’s energy transition must go hand-in-hand with an effort to create shipboard jobs for women and young seafarers.

To do that, Barcellona said seafarers should be offered a career path that extends beyond their time at sea.

“If you are offered additional skills that can help you after your career at sea to become a professional in the industry ashore in your country, it would be beneficial for many countries to have the opportunity to have highly-skilled workers to come back and provide services,” he said.

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“Today, there is not this kind of opportunity or career path.”

Barcellona also pointed to the need for seafarers to have access to the internet, and not just because the younger generations spend a significant amount of time on it.

“We not only push for the seafarer to be able to go on WhatsApp or surf the net, but we see in this interaction between shore and ship the opportunity for e-learning and training that the company will have the possibility to continue while the seafarers are on board,” he said.