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Seafarers’ Identity Documents

Security, seafarers’ shore leave and ILO Convention 185

From 10 to 12 February, the Ad Hoc Tripartite Maritime Committee, established to propose amendments to the Seafarer’s Identity Documents Convention, 2003 (No. 185), met to consider the difficulties that security requirements have placed on seafarers’ access to shore leave. Brandt Wagner, Head, Transport and Maritime Unit, ILO Sectoral Policies Department, spoke with ILO News about the meeting and how it dealt with issues around shore leave and security.

Analysis | 24 March 2016
What is the Seafarers’ Identity Documents Convention (Revised), 2003 (No.185)?

Since 2001 there have been increased international efforts to improve maritime security. Convention No. 185, adopted in 2003, provides for seafarers to carry documents enabling their verifiable identification, for example when going ashore at a foreign port. This enhances security while facilitating shore leave and the professional movement of the seafarers. The Convention therefore improves security while promoting decent work.

What is the place of shore leave in relation to ensuring decent work for seafarers?

Seafarers spend the majority of their working time at sea. A ship is a confined environment, where one lives and works every day, day after day, with the same people and in the same working and living spaces. When their ship comes into port, seafarers look forward to having some time, even if only a few hours, on land and off the ship. This is an ancient and important aspect of the seafaring life.

Going ashore provides the opportunity to relax and recharge, even to seek help when needed. Seafarers often visit seafarers’ welfare centres, which may provide services, not always available on ships, such as use of phones and the internet to contact family, or access to medical care. He or she often simply wants to see a bit more than their own vessel, their shipmates and the sea. Shore leave is important for physical and psychological health. Guaranteeing access to shore leave is necessary to attract new seafarers and the retention of experienced seafarers, which in turn is important to safety, security, protection of the marine environment and, indirectly, to maintaining international trade.

What have been the challenges to shore leave and transit access in recent years?

Shipping is a very efficient industry. In times past, ships might spend days or even weeks in port. Today this is rare, as cargo is rapidly loaded and discharged, and ships are soon underway. Even cruise ships quickly embark and disembark their passengers. Modern marine terminals are usually located far from cities or towns, making it increasingly difficult for a seafarer to leave the confines of the terminal. Anything that slows or prohibits seafarers from shore leave or travel, including increased security measures, affects their professional and personal lives.

More recently, well known terrorist attacks and other events and concerns have led to a tightening of security in ports and marine terminals. Without proper identification, seafarers may not even be permitted to step off the ship. Seafaring is a very international profession, and seafarers must often travel great distances, and across many borders, to join and leave their ships. Facilitation of their shore leave and transit is vital.

States want to be sure if a person coming ashore on or off a ship, or travelling to or from a ship, is a seafarer and can be properly identified. An earlier ILO Convention, adopted in 1958, provided for seafarers’ identity documents, but evolving security concerns led to a need to upgrade its provisions to improve security features of the documents while continuing to facilitate seafarers’ access to shore leave and transit.

What was the proposal before the Ad hoc committee?

At the time Convention No. 185 was adopted in 2003, the preferred technology for use in seafarers’ identity documents was a fingerprint template in a two-dimensional barcode. However, following developments in biometric technology, the most accepted technology for identity documents has become a facial image stored in a contactless chip. This is the same biometric feature that is being used in international E-Passports, which meet International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) specifications for machine-readable passports, visas and ID cards (“travel documents”), used in crossing borders. Increasing numbers of countries are issuing E-Passports, and have invested in the equipment to issue and read documents that comply with the ICAO specifications.

Fortunately, Convention No. 185 was developed with an eye to allowing its provisions to be kept up-to-date with such changes in technology. This was done by placing the technical elements in annexes that could be updated following an expedited process. In keeping with recommendations made by an ILO meeting of experts held in 2015, and subsequent decisions by the Governing Body of the ILO, an Ad Hoc Tripartite Maritime Committee held in February 2016 was tasked to consider amendments to those annexes. Following extensive discussion, the proposed amendments were adopted. Subject to adoption by the International Labour Conference and acceptance by Member States, future Seafarers’ Identity Documents, issued in accordance with the amended version of Convention No. 185, will use a facial image stored in a contactless chip, making them more widely accepted and more easily used.

The 2016 Ad Hoc meeting also discussed and agreed two resolutions. One addressed transitional measures, including recommendations on when the amendments should entry into force and providing that the inability to read the current form of seafarers’ identity documents should not be used as the sole reason to refuse a seafarer entry, or access to shore, or transit to or from the ship. The second, among other things, expressed concern at difficulties that seafarers continue to experience in being able to enjoy shore leave and transit to and from ships and called for action to improve this situation.

What is the next step for the amendments?

The Governing Body discussed and endorsed the outcome of the Ad Hoc Tripartite Maritime Committee at its March 2016 session. The next step will be for the International Labour Conference to consider and adopt the amendments and resolutions when it meets from 31 May to 11 June this year.