There's a very long history of merchant seafarers being thrust into the front line of conflict at sea and maritime unions have sought for many decades to ensure that members are not exposed to excessive risks.
With merchant vessels once again facing threats in the Arabian Gulf, Nautilus has agreed to temporarily designate the Strait of Hormuz as a ‘warlike zone’ from August 2, following government advice to avoid the area unless accompanied by UK naval support. That designation gives seafarers the right to sign off ships bound for the area, additional 'war risk' payments and special insurance protection.
The roots of WOAC can be traced back more than a century – and its existence serves to underline the scale of the dangers that seafarers have been exposed to over this time.
More than 12,600 British merchant seafarers lost their lives during World War One, with the introduction of U-boats adding a new dimension of danger to maritime warfare. Yet during the early stages of the war, seafarers serving on ships which had not been chartered by the government went off pay as soon as their vessel was sunk, and they received no compensation for lost possessions.
Although the Admiralty had agreed to pay a £1 a month bonus to seafarers on ships taken up from the trade, along with compensation for those killed or injured because of 'warlike operations', it took two years for an industry-wide war risk scheme to be introduced giving torpedoed seafarers a minimum payment of one month's wages.
Worried about the country's ability to continue crewing its ships, the government established a special Board of Arbitration – which was to become the National Maritime Board (NMB) in 1917 – with representatives of owners, officers and ratings to regulate the supply of seafarers and fix their terms and conditions.
War risk payments and compensation were high on its agenda, right from the outset and in what turned out to be the last month of the war the Board agreed to pay a £3 per month bonus for seafarers.
A total of 26 British merchant ships were lost during the Spanish civil war, between 1936 and 1939, and seafarer unions had to fight to get owners to agree to pay a 50% bonus – later increased to 100% – for the crews of ships trying to beat the blockades.
When the Second World War broke out, merchant seafarers were given a special 'war risk' payment amounting to almost one-third of basic salary. By 1943, with profound concerns about seafarer shortages, the bonus was more than trebled and agreement was reached that every shipwrecked seafarer would be guaranteed full pay – including the war risk bonus – until they returned to the UK or found a job on another vessel.
The NMB was abolished by shipowners in 1990 as part of a wider move away from centralised industrial negotiations, but they agreed to continue with the operation of several joint bodies – including WOAC – to bring both sides together to discuss important issues.
The committee is now comprised of Trade Unions Nautilus International and RMT, and the UK Chamber of Shipping.
Then, as now, WOAC provided a forum for shipping companies and seafarer unions to consider threat levels and monitor 'warlike activities' to determine whether war risk service clauses in collective agreements should be invoked.
The interpretation of 'warlike operations' has been a consistent source of debate between both sides – not least during the 1980s 'tanker war' in the Gulf and in relation to other security threats, such as piracy and terrorism.
But in politically unstable world, the need for WOAC has been repeatedly demonstrated and its value has been underlined by the fact that it has served for a model for similar schemes in other countries, as well as at a global level for the International Bargaining Forum (IBF), which Nautilus is a part of, and the Maritime Labour Convention (MLC) provisions for 'war zone' service by merchant seafarers.