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Maritime Labour Convention

Maritime Labour Convention: Setting sail for a decent future

When the ILO adopted the Maritime Labour Convention, 2006 in February 2006, Director-General Juan Somavia called it “making labour history” for the world’s more than 1.2 million seafarers. Two years on, the MLC has been ratified by three key flag states representing nearly 20 per cent of the world’s gross tonnage with many more ratifications and industry agreements already under way. A five-year ILO action plan designed to achieve entry into force by 2011 is moving forward this month with two key tripartite experts’ meetings to adopt guidelines for flag State inspections and port State control officers. The ILO reports from the “City of London”, where the MLC is already being put to the test.

Article | 10 September 2008

GREENWICH, UK (ILO Online) – The overpowering smell of sea salt and machine oil permeates the engine room of the “City of London” – a large seagoing British aggregate dredging ship moored here that represents a flagship for a new era in maritime labour standards.

True, the large artificially-lit room presents hazards to the inexperienced eye.

Every time Motorman John Grout crosses a watertight door he points to his helmet, meaning “mind your head”. There is no talking in the engine room – everyone there must wear earplugs.

For six months of the year, this damp, dark and noisy environment is his workplace. The cabins and deck he shares with 11 other crew members are his home. In a job like his, decent living and working conditions are his lifeline.

“The guidelines for labour and living conditions are very clear and strict”, he says. “Unless it is necessary to work extra time in machinery breakdown, we always follow the guidelines.”

Not all seafarers are so lucky. Unlike this 100-meter long dredger, many of the crew on the world’s ships – which today employ over a million seafarers and haul 90 per cent of the world’s trade – work in far more difficult, dangerous and dirty conditions that represent threats to their safety, and sometimes their lives.

The ILO has adopted some 70 instruments (Conventions and Recommendations) since 1920 in an attempt to ensure decent working and living conditions for seafarers while at sea and in ports. The volume and detail of these instruments has sometimes made it difficult for governments to ratify and enforce all of them. In addition, a large number of the instruments contained requirements that needed to be updated to reflect technological and operating changes in the industry.

Then, in 2006, after five years of preparation by international seafarers’ and shipowners’ organizations and governments, the ILO’s International Labour Conference adopted a major new Convention that consolidated and updated almost all of the existing maritime labour instruments.

To borrow an image from shipping, it was like winding many small strands into a single, strong hawser.

The Maritime Labour Convention, 2006, often described as a “Bill of Rights” for seafarers, also helps to achieve a “level-playing field”for quality shipowners. Its basic aim is to achieve worldwide protection for all seafarers and to give them the ability to have their concerns addressed where conditions fail to meet the requirements of the Convention.

In addition to consolidating and modernizing the existing requirements, the Convention also introduces important developments in connection with compliance and enforcement. These are intended to ensure that labour standards are enforced as effectively as the IMO conventions on ship safety, security and environmental protection (SOLAS/MARPOL) by both flag and port States.

“Under the MLC, States must inspect all ships flying their flag and also issue those ships with a maritime labour certificate and a declaration of maritime labour compliance to ships if they are 500 GT or over and go on international voyages. If a flag state inspection is unsatisfactory, the inspector will not issue the certificate, refuse to endorse it or, in especially bad cases, withdraw it. These are greater powers than inspectors have under the present regime”, says Neil Atkinson, an inspector for the UK’s Maritime and Coastguard Agency.

The reasons for detaining a ship will also change once the MLC comes into force. “Nowadays detention is limited to safety-related matters. The new Convention goes beyond this and also covers the social welfare of seafarers. That means an inspector will be able to detain a vessel or prevent it from going to sea if social or labour rights are being violated, for example if wages are not being paid or employment records are not in order”, says Mr. Atkinson.

Representatives from governments and seafarers’ and shipowners’ organizations are meeting this month in Geneva to discuss the adoption of guidelines for flag State inspections and for port State control inspections under the terms of the MLC – an important step in the action plan to bring the Convention into force (Note 1).

For Captain Stewart Ferrier, General Manager of United Marine Dredging, the company who owns the City of London, working and living conditions on board are not only right but good for business as well. A ship that complies with the MLC will be more efficient because it will breeze through inspections.

“The compliance with labour standards is important so that you can prove to the flag State authorities that you’re operating within the guidelines required, and so that the seafarers and the master know they are operating their vessel in an appropriate manner”, he says.

“The MLC was expressly designed to be a globally applicable, easily understandable, readily updatable and uniformly enforced legal instrument that, once it enters into force, will be one of the main pillars of the international regulatory regime for quality shipping”, says Cleopatra Doumbia-Henry, Director of the ILO’s International Labour Standard Department.

The MLC will come into force 12 months after ratification by at least 30 ILO member States with a total share of at least 33 per cent of the world’s gross tonnage of ships. The high level of ratification reflects the importance that the representatives of governments, shipowners and seafarers placed on the need to achieve “on the ground” or “real” changes for the industry – a very realistic goal for this Convention, considering that it was adopted by 314 votes and no objections.

So far, Bahamas, Liberia and the Marshall Islands have ratified it. Together they represent nearly 20 per cent of the world’s gross tonnage. A large number of other countries in all regions have already taken steps to move towards ratification. An important decision was taken on 15 June 2007, when the EU Council adopted a decision authorizing all EU member States to ratify the MLC, 2006 in the interest of the European Community before 31 December 2010. Recently the EU social partners signed an agreement to transpose the provisions of the MLC into EU law through an EU Directive.

In September 2006, the International Labour Office adopted a five-year Action Plan to achieve rapid and widespread ratification and effective implementation of the Maritime Labour Convention, 2006. That Plan adopted specific targets and a strategy to achieve entry into force by 2011. So far all targets have been met for achieving enough ratifications for entry into force by 2011 and many other initiatives implementing the MLC, 2006 in the industry practices are underway.

Note 1 – See Proposals for flag State inspections under the Maritime Labour Convention, 2006 and Proposals for port State control officers carrying out inspections under the Maritime Labour Convention, 2006 to be discussed by two Tripartite Expert Meetings to adopt Guidelines on Flag State inspections and Guidelines for Port State Control Officers. These meetings will take place at the ILO Headquarters in Geneva from 15 to 19 and 22 to 26 September 2008, respectively.