Six months in force, eight years in the making: The ILO Maritime Labour Convention, 2006 is now in full sail

Interview with Cleopatra Doumbia-Henry, Director, ILO International Labour Standards Department, ILO, Geneva

Article | 24 February 2014
In the six months since the ILO’s historic Maritime Labour Convention, 2006 came into force, the impact of this comprehensive international legal standard across the globe has accelerated rapidly. As of February, there have been 56 ratifications by ILO Member States representing more than 80 percent of the world’s gross tonnage of shipping. Today, well over a million seafarers and thousands of ship owners are covered by a single, comprehensive labour standard for this industry that is so essential to international trade.

Cleopatra Doumbia-Henry, Director of the ILO’s International Labour Standards Department, assesses the current state of the Convention and its implementation and what it means for international labour law and world trade.

ILO News: What is the current state in the implementation of the MLC, 2006?

CDH: Today, we are marking not one, but two watersheds. Along with the six-month anniversary of its coming into force for the first 30 countries that have ratified it, yesterday marked the eight year anniversary of its adoption on 23 February 2006. Even then the MLC, 2006 was described as historic. It is very rare that such a comprehensive and novel ILO Convention has been adopted without disagreement. The last eight years have been very busy as the ILO followed a five-year strategic plan designed to help ensure widespread ratification combined with effective national implementation to build national capacity to implement the Convention. We have seen a rapidly increasing pace of ratifications by the countries representing the majority of the world’s shipping tonnage, along with increasing high level of international interest and support. The convergence of interests on the part of the governments, ship owners and seafarers that launched this Convention continues to drive its success. In my view, this level of cooperation is what makes this Convention the most innovative of the ILO’s Conventions.

ILO News: What are some of the milestones you’ve seen since the Convention came into force on 20 August 2013?

CDH: In addition to the Guidelines that the ILO adopted between 2006 and 2013 explaining the Convention and its implementation in connection with flag State and port State ship inspections and medical examinations as well as guidance regarding model provisions for legal implementation, an ILO tripartite meeting of experts has also recently adopted ground-breaking guidelines for the training of ships’ cooks, covering everything from training and responsibilities of ships cooks to food handling, provision of food without charge to seafarers as well as minimum standards for the amount and quality of food and drinking water on board ships. Also, the international representative organizations for seafarers and for ship owners, the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) and the International Shipping Federation (ISF), respectively, have issued their own important guidelines on implementing the MLC, 2006 and what it means for ship owners and seafarers. Social networks have also sprung up, providing instant sharing of information on issues related to the Convention. And of course, inspections are underway, and actions are being taken in many ports to make sure the MLC, 2006’s provisions are being respected, and that action is then taken on board ships to correct problems.

ILO News: What else has been done as part of the implementation process, both before and after the Convention came into force?

CDH: In response to the anticipated huge increase in the workload of inspecting and certifying an estimated 40,000 ships, the ILO has literally created a “battalion” of inspectors through training mainly through the Maritime Labour Academy at the International Training Centre in Turin. The ILO has also helped Member States build capacity to carry out the necessary legal work, and created a dedicated MLC, 2006 website, with many tools and resources, including a database for various national reports and other information that is to be submitted to the ILO’s Director General. Activities have also been undertaken in the maritime sector regarding insurance to meet some of key requirements under the MLC, 2006.

ILO News: How widespread has ratification been, and are there any remaining gaps that need to be filled?

CDH: Indeed, while we can celebrate the rapidity and range of ratifications, we still have some regional gaps. It would be very good to see more ratifications from the Asia region, one of the rapidly growing economic regions and a major source of the worlds’ seafaring work force. EU countries that have not yet ratified will soon do so, largely as a result of legal instruments adopted following EU social partner initiatives. The other regions and areas where it would be important to see more ratification are the Middle East countries, the countries of the Indian Ocean region and also a big gap at present is in Latin America.

ILO News: What impact do you see the Convention having on world trade?

CDH: The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development review in 2013 called maritime transport “the backbone of international trade and the global economy.” The UNCTAD Maritime Review in 2013 said around 80 per cent of global trade by volume and more than 70 per cent of global trade by value are carried by sea and are handled by ports worldwide. The report notes that one of the most important legal developments was the entry into force of the MLC, 2006. This reflects the importance of the MLC, 2006, not only as a legal standard for seafarers and ship owners, but to the smooth functioning of the global economy. Seafarers keep the wheels of the economy turning. What is more, it also underscores the far-reaching impact of seafarers and ship owners on the goods, from energy to food that we take for granted in our daily lives. Although sometimes not usually described as world trade, I would be remiss if I did not also note the increasingly important economic impact of the cruise industry and commercial yachting. These sectors of the maritime industry also depend on and employ many of the world’s seafarers.

ILO News: Have you seen any problems in the implementation of the Convention?

CDH: We could expect a year or two of some uncertainty and possible confusion especially in connection with flag Sate inspections and port State control due to the novelty of the MLC, 2006 regime. However, much of this has been resolved or clarified with remarkable efficiency in many cases. This is due to the fact that a great effort has been made to make sure that the most important actors in the sector have been accurately informed about what the Convention does and does not address.

ILO News: What is the ILO’s role in implementing the Convention?

CDH: The ILO’s main role now regarding implementation will come into play when the national legal reports under Article 22 of the ILO’s Constitution are submitted to the ILO, the year after entry into force for each country. These reports will be reviewed by the ILO’s supervisory system.

ILO News: In April, the first meeting of the Special Tripartite Committee established under the MLC, 2006 will be held. What’s on the agenda and why is this so important?

CDH: This important committee, the “MLC Committee”,  has a key role to play in ensuring that the Code of the MLC, 2006, the part that contains the more technical provisions, remains up to date and meet the needs of the maritime sector. It will meet on 7-11 April 2014 to consider two proposals for amendments – that is, changes, to the Code of the MLC, 2006. These are provisions to more clearly deal with the liability of ship owners with respect to compensation for claims for death, personal injury and abandonment of seafarers. These matters were extensively discussed for a decade by a tripartite ILO/IMO working group. This first meeting of the MLC Committee will underscore one of the ground breaking provisions of the MLC, 2006 that allows it to be updated easily to address the changing needs of seafarers and the shipping industry. This flexibility and adaptability is unique in the ILO standards system, and I believe is one of the great strengths of the MLC, 2006.

ILO News: What does this mean in the larger context of the ILO’s supervisory mechanisms for labour standards?

CDH: I believe that in many respects the MLC, 2006 can serve as what I will call a “global pilot project” for exploring innovative approaches to implement the concept of decent work for transnational workers and employers. If we can all agree through tripartite dialogue and international cooperation on a standard that creates decent employment and a level playing field in a sector as complex as maritime, we should be able to do this almost anywhere. As someone who has devoted an entire lifetime of work to labour standards, I can only hope that this dialogue between government, employers and workers and other actors will spark similar initiatives in other sectors or more generally.