Full steam ahead! ILO adopts "super Convention" for the maritime sector

Over 1.2 million seafarers represent the world's most global and globalized workforce, and it is they and the shipowners for whom they work who move the bulk of world trade as well as serving on passenger ships. The importance of this sector - and the need to update and revitalize ILO standards, some of which were nearly as old as the Organization - came together at the recent International Labour Conference on maritime matters. As a result, the Conference adopted what has been called a "super Convention" for the world's maritime sector, providing a comprehensive charter for seafarers and shipowners alike. Here - in question and answer format - World of Work discusses the new Maritime Labour Convention, 2006 and why it's so important.

What is the Maritime Labour Convention, 2006 about?

The maritime industry is highly globalized. In fact, it is the first global workforce. No matter what flag they fly or port they call home, ships roam the world's oceans, largely staffed by seafarers drawn from many different countries, and, in particular, from less developed economies. The tremendous increase in the volume of world trade over the last 50 years has been largely due to a massive increase in productivity in the shipping sector - not just because of reduced import barriers or better telecommunications and infrastructure. Today, ships haul some 90 per cent of world trade. What's more, the speed with which goods are moved around the world has increased dramatically and the cost has fallen exponentially. Without shipowners and seafarers there would be no globalization as we know it today.

What are the main features of the new Maritime Labour Convention, 2006?

The new Convention provides an innovative, integrated approach to ensuring decent work for all seafarers, wherever they come from and whatever the national flag of the ship on which they work. The ILO constituents have recognized that poor working conditions and quality shipping cannot go together. They have put a socio-economic floor to global competition in the maritime sector. This competition will continue, but it will be based on fair, well-conceived common rules for fair competition and on cooperation to ensure that they are followed.

What sorts of ships and seafarers are covered?

The Convention aims to achieve worldwide protection for all seafarers in several ways. It is estimated that there are over 1.2 million people working at sea, but up to now it was not clear who was to be considered a seafarer - for example, those who work on board ship but are not directly involved in navigating or operating the ship, such as the many personnel on passenger ships. The new Convention clearly defines a seafarer as any person who is employed or engaged or works in any capacity on board a ship that is covered by the Convention. Except for a few specific exclusions, the Convention applies to all ships ordinarily engaged in commercial activities, whether publicly or privately owned, and to the seafarers on those ships.

Flexibility is provided for national authorities to exempt from some aspects of the Convention smaller ships (200 gross tonnage and below) that do not go on international voyages. Also, the Convention does not apply to:

  • ships which navigate exclusively in inland waters or waters within, or closely adjacent to, sheltered waters or areas where port regulations apply;
  • ships engaged in fishing;
  • ships of traditional build such as dhows and junks; and
  • warships or naval auxiliaries.
Workers on board fishing vessels will be covered in a separate proposed Convention and Recommendation to be discussed at the International Labour Conference in 2007.

What is the significance of the tonnage of these ships?

The success of the Convention will largely depend on its wide acceptance. One indicator of wide acceptance will be when a substantial amount of the world's shipping is flying the flags of States that have ratified it. The amount of shipping is measured by gross tonnage, the internationally accepted measure of the capacity of ships. The Convention will only come into force 12 months after it has been ratified by at least 30 ILO member States with a total share of world gross tonnage of 33 per cent. In order to bring the Convention into force quickly, it is therefore not only important that a large number of States ratify it but also that States with significant shipping fleets ratify it.

What are some of the key elements of this Convention that will affect seafarers and shipowners?

The new Convention is set to achieve more compliance by operators and owners of ships and to strengthen enforcement of Convention requirements through mechanisms at all levels, including:

  • provisions for complaint procedures available to seafarers;
  • the shipowners' and shipmasters' supervision of conditions on their ships;
  • the flag States' jurisdiction and control over their ships; and
  • port State inspections of foreign ships.
The Convention sets minimum requirements for seafarers to work on a ship and contains provisions on conditions of employment, accommodation, recreational facilities, food and catering, health protection, medical care, welfare and social security protection.

How do these new provisions differ from those contained in the scores of existing Conventions regarding the maritime sector?

There are several novel features as far as the ILO is concerned. The whole structure of the new Convention differs from that of traditional ILO Conventions. It consists of the basic provisions, i.e. the Articles and Regulations, followed by a two-part Code. The Regulations and the Code, the latter containing Standards and Guidelines, are organized under the following five Titles: 1: Minimum requirements for seafarers to work on a ship; 2: Conditions of employment; 3: Accommodation, recreational facilities, food and catering; 4: Health protection, medical care, welfare and social security protection; and 5: Compliance and enforcement. There is also an Explanatory Note to further assist member States in implementing the Convention. Other innovations are found in the accelerated amendment procedures and the system for the certification of ships.

How does the Convention balance the need for protection of seafarers and flexibility in the maritime labour market?

The Convention text establishes clear definitions of rights while at the same time allowing a necessary degree of national discretion in the delivery of those rights with transparency, consultation and accountability. The Convention will develop further with the evolving needs of the industry. It will provide an assurance of universal application and enforcement measures and will ensure a level playing field worldwide.

The adoption of the new Convention is the culmination of five years of international social dialogue.

Tripartism and social dialogue are key tools in getting beyond policy and ideological dead ends. They can reconcile the pressures for productivity and competitiveness with sustainable development and improvement in living conditions for all. In the maritime sector, the ILO has shown how this can be done. The Maritime Labour Convention, 2006 shows that tripartism can give constructive responses to the challenges of this globalized industry and to globalization more generally.

How does the new Convention provide a way forward for dealing with globalization?

Many of the challenges the maritime sector has to deal with - and the framework in which it operates - are also faced by other sectors. Governments everywhere are trying to manage and develop national economies and specific sectors while also dealing with the demands of adjustments to financial and trade liberalization. Enterprises are themselves struggling to succeed, grow and survive in the face of intensifying competition in domestic, regional and global markets. And workers often feel that they are at the receiving end of these tensions. In the search for solutions it has become more and more evident that there can be no lasting success through purely national solutions to global problems.

The Convention is also a good example of cooperation in the multilateral system.

The very first Article of the Convention requires member States to cooperate with each other for its effective implementation and enforcement. This means cooperation between countries and between international organizations and other intergovernmental organizations, as well as the many interested shipowners' and seafarers' organizations and other NGOs. The Convention connects with developments in the multilateral system and is consistent with the strong movement towards better integration of work among the organizations of the system. It has been designed so that relevant elements mesh well with the established systems of the International Maritime Organization (IMO). There has been long-standing cooperation between the ILO and the IMO, and this has continued in the development of the Maritime Labour Convention, 2006. Such collaboration also extends to very practical day-to-day problems of seafarers.

What are the next challenges?

Ratification and then implementation will be the next challenges. The prospects for ratification have been an integral part of the discussions, and the concerns expressed have been addressed in the development of the instrument. So, early ratification is a reasonable expectation. But we do not take this for granted. The ILO's constituents, in particular the social partners, and the International Labour Office itself must now become advocates for ratification with parliamentarians, with concerned ministries, with all who have a stake in the maritime sector. Solid partnerships will be needed as well as resourced programmes to provide technical cooperation where needed. To respond, the ILO plans to put together a significant technical cooperation programme.

How will the new Convention affect ILO standard setting in general?

The Maritime Labour Convention, 2006 seeks to ensure the relevance of ILO standards in this era of the globalization of production and work. What has been done for the maritime sector may also provide the impetus and support for similar innovative and balanced approaches in other industries.

This is only the beginning

In his reply to the Delegates at the Maritime Labour Conference, Director-General Juan Somavia spoke of the widespread applicability of the new Convention, and noted that not only does it have enforcement mechanisms that will allow it to be more effective but it also sets a model for addressing workplace and globalization issues in other sectors. Plus, he pledged full support of the Office for the implementation of the Convention, adding that the ILO would begin examining the requirements of technical cooperation that this Convention implies and would "do what we can do in order to be able to push forward with the next steps".

"It does not mean that we do not have any problems ahead of us," said Mr. Somavia. "Of course, we do. But life is step-by-step. It will take us some years to have it ratified. But history will remind us of this great moment of the International Labour Conference at its Maritime Session, when we demonstrated that the challenges of globalization could be addressed through dialogue and tripartism."