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Maritime Labour Convention

Achieving the seafarers’ international bill of rights: more than half way there!

When the ILO adopted the Maritime Labour Convention (MLC) on 23 February 2006, Director-General Juan Somavia called it a historic moment for the world’s more than 1.2 million seafarers. Three years on, in line with the ILO’s five-year Action Plan, this key global agreement has now been ratified by five major flag States and key ILO Members, representing nearly 45 per cent of the world’s gross tonnage. Many more Member ratifications supported by international industry agreements are already under way.

Article | 23 February 2009

GENEVA (ILO Online) – From its early days, the ILO and its government, employer and worker constituents realized that in the world of work the situation of seafarers and shipowners, as one of the first globalized sectors, was special. Already in 1920, the International Labour Conference featured agenda items such as hours of work and conditions of employment for seafarers, prohibiting the employment of children under 14 years of age on board ship and envisaged the possible drawing up of an international seamen’s code.

Since 1920 the ILO has adopted more than 70 Conventions and Recommendations to ensure decent working and living conditions for seafarers while at sea and in port.

The MLC, 2006, is a “one stop shop” Convention, that brings together and modernizes the majority of these legal instruments. It was specifically designed to help achieve a “level playing-field” for quality shipowners and at the same time help ensure worldwide protection for the world’s more than 1.2 million seafarers. It covers the minimum requirements for seafarers to work on a ship, conditions of employment, hours of work and rest, wages, leave, repatriation, accommodation, recreational facilities, food and catering, occupational safety and health protection, medical care, welfare and social security protection.

The Convention also establishes a strong compliance and enforcement mechanism based on flag State inspection and certification of seafarers’ working and living conditions. This is supported by port State inspection of ships to ensure ongoing compliance between inspections. The five-year ILO action plan designed to achieve entry into force of the MLC by 2011 took a major step forward last September with two key tripartite experts’ meetings to adopt guidelines for flag State inspections and for port State control officers carrying out inspections under the MLC, 2006.

These guidelines, which were called for in a resolution at the International Labour Conference that adopted the MLC, 2006, provide “how to” practical assistance for ratifying countries and will help them implement their obligations under the MLC, 2006. The MLC, 2006, encourages inspections for compliance with its requirements on all foreign ships visiting a ratifying country’s ports, even ships from countries that have not ratified the MLC, 2006.

However, in line with other major Conventions in this sector, if a ship flies the flag of a country that has ratified the MLC, 2006, and produces the required certification issued by the flag State, the port State official must accept these documents as evidence of compliance, except in specified circumstances such as where an inspector has clear grounds for believing that a ship is non-compliant or receives a complaint by a seafarer.

The growing numbers of ship detentions in many ports worldwide show the continuous need for such a global system of regular port inspections. In the European Union for example, the number of detentions of ships for a wide range of issues including environmental, ship safety and security and labour standards, has risen for the second year in a row, from 944 in 2005 to 1,174 in 2006 and 1,250 in 2007.

A major step towards decent work on the seas

While the adoption of the Guidelines for port State control officers and flag State inspections was considered a major step towards quality shipping and decent work on the seas, new ratifications by ILO member States have brought the entry into force of the MLC, 2006, within reach.

Entry into force of the Maritime Labour Convention, 2006, requires ratification by at least 30 ILO member States with a total share in the world gross tonnage of ships of at least 33 per cent. To date, the Convention has been ratified by Liberia, the Republic of Marshall Islands and The Bahamas, and more recently by Panama and Norway.

Panama, the largest flag State in the world, with nearly 25 per cent of the world’s merchant fleet flying its flag, was the fourth major shipping country in the world to ratify the MLC, 2006. Panama’s ratification on 6 February 2009, one of the two conditions for the entry into force of this Convention has been fulfilled. Appropriately Panama took a leadership role in the tripartite meeting to adopt the Guidelines for flag State inspection.

Norway, the first European country to ratify the MLC, 2006, ratified on 10 February 2009. Norway played a key role in the preparation of the Convention and developing the international guidelines for flag State inspections and for port State control officers carrying out inspections under the MLC, 2006. Its ratification will give a strong signal to other European countries to continue their efforts towards ratification and promoting decent work in the shipping industry.

According to Cleopatra Doumbia-Henry, Director of the ILO’s International Labour Standards Department, shipping has benefited more than almost any other sector in recent years from globalization. “But this has also made it more vulnerable to the global economic crisis. Freight and charter rates have plunged, jobs at shipping companies are being cut and many ships are being parked for months at a time. In this situation, it is important to have an international regulatory regime for quality shipping”.

A large number of other countries in all regions have already taken steps toward ratification. In June 2007, 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. In December 2008, the Council of the European Union reached a political agreement on a proposal for a Directive implementing the agreement concluded by the European Community Shipowners’ Associations (ECSA) and the European Transport Workers’ Federation (ETF) on the MLC, 2006.

“We fully expect that the MLC, 2006 will enter into force by 2011”, says Ms Doumbia-Henry. “Even in these difficult economic times it is important and heartening to see that countries are moving forward on their international obligation to achieve secure decent work in a major internal industry that is essential to the world trading system. Achieving the entry into force tonnage requirement so rapidly on such a comprehensive Convention is very good news and a good example for other sectors.”