Seamen Wages

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Seamen Wages

Extreme variations have occurred in the payment of seamen's wages, by time period, type of ship, route, and trade. However, the voyage remained the basic unit, which determined intervals of payment up to the twentieth century. Before each voyage, a seafarer signed a crew agreement that stipulated the wages for the entire journey. In different historical periods, three main types of wage agreement appeared in the merchant navy. The first known type, dominant in medieval shipping, was the share system, according to which the crew members were paid with a proportional share of the profit. This system continued into modern times in whaling and coastal fishing. The sixteenth century saw the shift from shares to wages; at this time a fixed amount of money was paid for labor on a particular voyage. This system partly coexisted with the third type of wage agreement, the monthly wage, which remains the most common type in the twenty-first century.

The system of maritime pay differs radically from that of shore-based labor. Historically, as a norm, wages were paid on completion of each voyage and seafarers' pay stopped whilst in port, a custom that was gradually abolished by the mid-twentieth century. "Freight is the mother of wages" was another rule affecting seamen's wages until the mid-nineteenth century. On the whole, a seaman's right to wages depended on the ship's earning of freight: if freight was lost, the seaman lost all his rights to his wages. In the deck and engine departments, wage level was determined strictly by rank. For the catering crew, especially between the world wars, the passenger class to which they were assigned affected the level of pay, because tips were more substantial in first class. Those with no access to passengers, such as mess room stewards, had the poorest prospects of earning. Promotion involved being allocated a post where more tips could be made. The seafarers' pay system increasingly has become more like that of shore-basedlabor; for example, in conjunction with other industries, the bonus system was introduced on the largest liners by the 1920s.

Seafarers were the world's first globalized workforce, and thus the first to be effectively exploited. Since medieval times, ship owners have taken full advantage of the availability of foreign labor, which has kept wages low and caused racial tension amongst seafarers. In the late nineteenth century European seamen were the cheap source of labor in the North Atlantic. However, there were extreme variations in the levels of pay between ports, so ports where wages were higher were also the most popular desertion points. For seamen, jumping ship was an effective method of bargaining for wages; seamen took advantage of the fluctuating labor supply and aimed to negotiate the best possible wages for themselves.

Seafarers' wages would normally include upkeep, so seamen have traditionally regarded food as an important part of their pay, and ship owners, for their part, often tried to increase their profits by providing seamen with provisions of inferior quality and quantity. Therefore, the quality of food became a source of constant friction on-board. Pilfering, smuggling, and stealing from ships' cargoes were also sources for additional income for seamen. This partly originates from the old custom according to which seafarers were allowed to carry some cargo on their own account.

By the eighteenth century the advance system had become an essential element of seamen's pay. In times of labor shortage, some captains paid one to two months' pay in advance in order to secure sufficient labor supply. The advance system also became a major asset in recruitment because it provided seamen with immediate access to money with which to pay off debts and supply their families. Crimps (the sailor town employment agents and boarding masters) took advantage of the arrangement by providing lodgings and high-interest credit to seamen in hope of receiving in return the seamen's advance pay. This, in turn, led to shanghaiing, a practice by which a seaman was carried to a ship against his will, often while intoxicated, and signed up on a voyage in exchange for his advance pay.

In the nineteenth century technological change from sail to steam led to changes in seamen's wages and to differentiated levels of pay. In the steamship era ships' schedules became more strictly defined and accordingly, wages became more regular. However, inequalities of pay increasingly became a problem. The ocean-going maritime workforce was split into those employed on sailing ships, tramp steamers, cargo liners, and passenger liners. To some extent, this differentiation was also hierarchical: the black British, the black colonial citizens, and the non-Europeans got the jobs and routes nobody else wanted. In British ships 35 percent of seafarers were lascar (Indian) and other foreign seamen by 1911. However, crews in transatlantic passenger liners remained almost 100 percent white. Sailing ships offered lower wages compared to liners; wage differentials between sailing ships and steamers widened from 20 to 30 percent in the 1880s to 40 percent by the 1890s. Furthermore, on steamships those in the deck and engineers' departments received a regular monthly income from the shipping company for regulated hours of work, whereas the catering personnel worked unrestricted hours and received part of their pay from passengers in the form of tips. As a result, the number of passengers carried became a crucial factor in determining the income of the modern-day seafarer. For the passenger liner crew, wages remain seasonal and income is difficult to predict. In the twenty-first century most seafarers sail under flags of convenience, which can employ their labor below trade union standards with the minimum work security.

There is a growing trend to recruit maritime labor from Third World countries. Wages have become racially segregated: black seamen have unprofitable career prospects, and they continue to be employed on routes and positions that have inferior pay and longer periods of work. The same applies to women, who, with black sailors remain the low-class seafarers of the modern period.

SEE ALSO Cargoes, Freight; Cargoes, Passenger; Containerization.


Williams, David M. "'Advance Notes' and the Recruitment of Maritime Labour in Britain in the Nineteenth Century." In The Market for Seamen in the Age of Sail, ed. Lewis R. Fischer. St. John's, Newfoundland: International Maritime Economic History Association, 1994.

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