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Getting ships in shape

As shipping increases, so does the need for more port State control

In response to an oil spill that fouled the west coast of France in 1978, European ministers took decisive action to establish a regional system for inspections of foreign ships in 1982. Yet the growing numbers of ship detentions in many ports worldwide show the continuous need for a global system of regular port inspections. From 22-26 September, more than 300 government, ship owner and seafarer representatives met at the ILO to adopt new guidelines on port state control under the Maritime Labour Convention of 2006. In this special report, ILO Online shows how inspections work and why they are needed.

Article | 09 October 2008

GENOA, Italy (ILO Online) – On a beautiful day in this Ligurian town known as “la Superba” for its splendid marble palaces, the Coast Guard is inspecting what seems to be a good ship.

The port extends 20 kilometres along the coast and is Italy’s leader in terms of cargo handling. With an estimated 60,000 employees, it is also the province’s main source of employment.

One of them is Lieutenant Vincenzo Paolo Leone. He is a member of the coast guard and one of three port state control officers (“PSCOs”). PSCOs are officers specially trained and authorized to carry out inspections of foreign ships coming into port. They carry out inspections of ships to check that the ships comply with international standards for ship safety, marine pollution prevention and for decent working and living conditions for seafarers.

These inspections in foreign ports complement and support the inspections of these ships that must be carried out by their flag States. It is Lt. Leone’s second ship inspection today. He is hoping that this ship will be as problem free as it appears on first sight.

The “Y M Orchid”, a 275 meter long recently built cargo ship operating under the flag of Panama, is in perfect condition. When asked how he feels about these inspections, Captain Sheng-Jou Yau, the ship’s master, says that “we have too many flag State and port State controls under different regional agreements although the standards are more or less the same”.

At this point of the conversation, a young seafarer, Ms Wang Chung- Hai, joins us. The young cadet breaks many stereotypes. She is one of the world’s 1-2 per cent women seafarers and hopes to become one of the even rarer women officers or ship captains one day.

The next ship we visit that day with Lt. Leone is quite different.

As it is in repair, he cannot effect a proper inspection today but he will certainly do so when welding and paint work is finished. A poster on board is impressive: “Some enclosed spaces on the ship may contain a dangerous atmosphere that will not support life”.

A euphemism for Dante’s Inferno – that’s at least the impression we have when one of the craftsmen in his oil and water resistant outfit suddenly emerges from one of the holes giving access to the bottom of the ship. His mask protects him against the poisonous vapours emanating from the hold.

We leave the ship with a drunken feeling … luckily, it is not followed by black-outs: according to the poster, “death is a guaranteed conclusion” in such a case.

The ship inspector is less concerned about our personal impressions. He tells the ship’s master to repair the ventilation system in the galley, buy some insecticide to get rid of flies and cockroaches and keep frozen fish separate from potatoes in the same refrigerator.

According to Lt. Leone, these are “deficiencies” that can lead to the detention of a ship. In Genoa, 25 out of 82 ships inspected under port State control have been detained in 2007.

When asked about the worst ship he has ever seen, he says: “When I was still a cadet I accompanied an inspector on a vessel where even the life boat was not operational”.

Tighter controls under the Paris Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on Port State Control, with new categories of ships to be controlled, have led to rising numbers of detentions in European ports over the last two years. The first in the world, the Paris MoU aims at eliminating the operation of sub-standard ships through a harmonized system of port State control, and has inspired nine similar agreements in other regions of the world.

Although some observers believe port State control now unnecessary, the contrary is true. After several years of declining rates of detention rates in the European Union, the past two years have seen a reversal with detentions on the rise again. With Bulgaria and Romania joining the Memorandum in 2007, the 27 member States of the agreement have carried out 22,875 inspections in 2007. For the second year in a row, the number of detentions has risen, from 944 in 2005 to 1,174 in 2006 and 1,250 in 2007.

Certain areas of deficiencies also show increases compared with 2006: certification of crew (15.4 per cent), safety (6.5 per cent), security (5.4 per cent), marine pollution and environment (13.9 per cent), working and living conditions (16,3 per cent), operational (19.2 per cent) and management problems (50.9 per cent).

Since its creation in 1919, the ILO has been actively working to ensure decent working and living conditions for seafarers while at sea and in ports. A key step was taken in 2006, when the ILO’s International Labour Conference adopted a major new Convention, the Maritime Labour Convention, 2006 (MLC, 2006) that consolidated and updated almost all of the existing maritime labour instruments. It also contains an important section devoted to strengthening compliance and enforcement through effective flag State inspection and ship certification and through port State control.

The MLC, 2006 will come into force 12 months after ratification by at least 30 ILO member States with a total share of at least 33 percent of the world’s gross tonnage of ships. So far, it’s been ratified by three major flag states representing nearly 20 percent of the the world’s gross tonnage, while many other countries have taken steps towards its ratification. The adoption of the port and flag state control guidelines last month in Geneva was considered a major step in this direction.

“When we look at the maritime world from the PSCOs’ perspective, we can still see seafarers sailing on dangerous ships, ships causing pollution, working and living conditions which are substantially below minimum international standards. I am confident that the new ILO guidelines on flag State inspection and the related guidelines for port State control officers, combined with the underlying Maritime Labour Convention, 2006 can meet these challenges and set a safe course to the future”, concludes Cleopatra Doumbia-Henry, director of the ILO’s International Labour Standards Department.