Seafarers' Rights International - Image © P. Terraz

The year 2013 witnessed a milestone in international efforts to protect seafarers’ rights and improve the working and living conditions for the world’s seafarers. On August 20 2013 the International Labour Organization’s (ILO) Maritime Labour Convention 2006 (MLC 2006), often called the ‘seafarers’ bill of rights’, became binding international law for 30 countries located in nearly every region of the world.

By December 2014 a total of 65 countries had ratified the MLC 2006, at which date the MLC became binding law for countries regulating more than 80% of the world’s shipping fleet.

This means that seafarers, including those with jobs in hotel and other passenger services on cruise ships and commercial yachts, will be able to point to these international minimum standards as the baseline for their rights. More than 100 pages long, the MLC 2006 sets minimum requirements for nearly every aspect of working and living conditions for seafarers including recruitment and placement practices, conditions of employment, hours of work and rest, repatriation, annual leave, payment of wages, accommodation, recreational facilities, food and catering, health protection, occupational safety and health, medical care, onshore welfare services and social protection.

Despite the high ratification level a fair question is whether this international legal document will have an impact on seafarers’ lives. Will it make a difference for seafarers and will it help to better ensure that every seafarer’s rights are in fact respected in practice? The answer to these questions will not be known until the Convention has had a chance to be put into practice at the ship-board level for a period of time.

The vision of the shipowners’ and seafarers’ representatives in 2001 when they first proposed the MLC 2006 was to find concrete solutions to some of the worst problems for seafarers’ working conditions. They had a number of solutions many of which were aimed at making sure that this new instrument, unlike those in the past, was not just a ‘law on the books’ but that it had ‘teeth’. The solutions they proposed were intended to make sure that standards would be properly implemented not only in national laws but also on board ship and that there would be consequences for failures at the national or ship board level. They also wanted to make sure that the Convention would be widely ratified to avoid unfair competition from operators of substandard ships.

MLC 2006 is specifically designed to establish a continuous ‘compliance awareness’ at every stage, from the national systems of protection up to the international system. This starts with the individual seafarers who need to be properly informed of their rights and of the remedies available in case of alleged non-compliance with the requirements of the Convention and whose right to make complaints, both onboard ship and ashore, is recognised in the Convention. It continues with the shipowners. Those that own or operate ships of 500 GT and above engaged in international voyages or voyages between foreign ports are required to develop and carry out plans for ensuring that the applicable national laws, regulations or other measures to implement MLC 2006 are actually being complied with. The masters of these ships are responsible for carrying out the shipowners’ plans and for keeping proper records to evidence implementation of the requirements of the Convention. As part of its updated responsibilities for the labour inspections for ships of 500 GT or above that are engaged in international voyages or voyages between foreign ports (ports located in a country other than the flag state of the ship), the flag state (or a recognised organisation on its behalf) must review the shipowners’ plans and verify and certify that they are actually in place and being implemented.

Ships flagged in ratifying countries are required to carry a maritime labour certificate and a declaration of maritime labour compliance on board. Flag states are also expected to ensure that national laws and regulations implementing the Convention’s standards are respected on smaller ships, including those that do not go on international voyages which are not covered by the certification system. Flag states are required to carry out periodic quality assessments of the effectiveness of their national systems of compliance, and their national reports to the ILO as part of its supervisory system must provide information on their inspection and certification systems, including on their methods of quality assessment. This general inspection system in the flag state is complemented by procedures to be followed in countries that are also, or even primarily, the source of the world’s supply of seafarers, when they will file their national reports on implementation of MLC 2006. These flag state inspections are then backed by the increasingly important role played by inspections in foreign ports under the system of Port State Control. During Port State Control, ships could be subject to a more detailed inspection and in cases where a ship does not conform to the requirement of MLC 2006 and the conditions on board are clearly hazardous to the safety, health or security of seafarers, or the non-conformity constitutes a serious or repeated breach of the requirement of the Convention (including seafarers’ rights), the ship may be detained until the problem is addressed.

Already since August 2013 several ships in ports in several countries have been detained by Port State Control authorities for problems relating to MLC 2006 compliance. There has also been a significant level of industry activity and training with respect to MLC 2006 since its adoption in 2006. Aside from the immediate consequences resulting from entry into force, MLC 2006 has already begun to have a significant impact on the on board culture and practices by setting the floor for standards.

But MLC 2006 is also a ‘living tree’. It did not stop developing in 2006 but was specifically designed to allow for rapid amendments to address new and emerging needs in the maritime sector. One of the very important innovations of MLC 2006 is to allow for rapid amendments to deal with changes and emerging needs of the industry. In April 2014, a meeting of the Special Tripartite Committee called for under Article XIII of the Convention was held. That Committee is charged with keeping ‘the working of this Convention under continuous review’ as well proposing and adopting amendments to the Code of the Convention under a more expedited amendment process based on tacit acceptance. In fact the first meeting of this Committee reviewed proposed amendments related to financial protection for the serious problem of abandonment of seafarers and also details for measures regarding ship owners’ liability for death and the long-term disability of seafarers.

These are all welcome indications of improved concern for the protection of seafarers’ rights and are a cause for celebration. However these developments will still need to be monitored and measured in light of practice to ensure that they do their job and the conditions are improved.