Is MLC working for seafarers?

Regular Splash contributor Carolyn Graham ponders whether shipping’s ‘bill of rights’ is fit for purpose.

This year, the International Labour Organization (ILO) celebrates 100 years. Its history of resilience in the face of criticism and threats to its survival, while continuing to contribute to decent work for workers worldwide, is perhaps reason to highlight its successes more so than its failures. One noteworthy success is the development and adoption of the Maritime Labour Convention 2006 (MLC). This accomplishment was monumental, taking 13 years from the first meeting to its coming into force. The ILO and its shipping industry partners were resolute that this convention would see the light of day.

Prior to the MLC, the ILO maritime conventions were not widely ratified and standards were being applied unevenly, if at all, across the industry. The MLC is historic in that it brings together the substance of all those conventions and attempts to provide a stronger regulatory framework. Its wide ratification should stand as testimony to the collective agreement by the industry that the subject matters covered by the MLC are important and worthy of the time, effort and resources invested in their development and adoption.

However, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. Not only is the MLC in force, but it appears that its standards are being applied. The latest port state control report from the Paris MOU for example, note that in its 2016 concentrated inspection campaign, implementation and compliance with MLC were being generally applied. This is positive news and the ILO can take credit for this attempt at global regulation of a complex work environment. Notwithstanding, there is much room for improvement in seafarers’ experiences with the MLC.

A recent study into the MLC and its provisions for safety representatives, reveal some concerns with seafarers not knowing much about the health and safety provisions and thinking that the MLC is not a part of their daily working lives. Considering that the MLC is promoted as the seafarers’ ‘bill of rights’, and the fourth pillar in the global regulatory regime for safe, secure and clean shipping, it is surprising that some seafarers are yet to embrace the MLC. For example, one seafarer interviewed was not bothered that he did not know much and thought that he would find out what his rights were if he needed to. There was a general lack of enthusiasm among the seafarers interviewed, although most of them thought it was a good thing.

Some were dismissive and lamented what they perceived as extra work imposed on them by the MLC provisions. One seafarer said he was overwhelmed by all the regulations. According to him, it was too much, ISM, MLC, ISPS, STCW, etc. He thought the MLC was an added burden and stated that he did not know much about it because it was not stressed in the way that the other conventions of the International Maritime Organization were stressed. Others reported that they learnt about the MLC and forgot because it was not a part of their daily work.

While the seafarers interviewed thought the MLC was about their rights, most were not familiar with important details. There was uncertainty in some instances as to how it contributed to improving their working conditions. Some reported that there were improvements in catering and shipowners were more responsive in providing entertainment and exercise equipment. At times however, they attributed this apparent change to general developments in the industry and not necessarily the MLC. A few did express the conviction that the MLC was helpful in those respects. One seafarer emphatically stated that before the MLC, he had to purchase his own water and at times food, but with the MLC all that changed, as the shipowner must provide those things.

Another noted improvement in catering with respect to the provision of appropriate meals and stated that he could complain if he was not satisfied with the meal and the cook was obliged to prepare something suitable. He noted that prior to the MLC, this was not possible. Importantly, those seafarers with a more positive perception relied on the fact that breaches of the labour standards were detainable under the MLC.

Another important area where there were mixed reports of the impact of the MLC, was the work/rest hours. Some thought more attention was being placed on work/rest hours due to the MLC, while others expressed uncertainty as to whether it was the MLC or again, general developments in the industry. Work/rest hours is a contentious issue and it is known that log books do not necessarily reflect the reality of hours worked. This is not surprising, as commercial pressure is still an issue yet to be openly addressed in the industry.

While the ILO and the shipping industry can be proud of the MLC, much remains to be done. Seafarers need continuous education and training on the MLC to understand its importance as a labour instrument for their protection and not another burdensome convention. There appears to be ample information online and resources to help seafarers understand the MLC, however, these seem to be missing the mark for some seafarers.

One area of neglect and misunderstanding on the part of seafarers is safety representation. The MLC provides for seafarers’ safety representatives, which the research shows is not implemented as envisaged. There is a wide gap between the theory and practice of safety representation onboard. Representation is worth discussing by the industry as there is strong research evidence that effective representation supports workers’ education and training on their health and safety protection. Representation increases the safety awareness and practices of workers and acts as one layer in a strong compliance and enforcement regime. Should the industry wishes to ensure the resources invested in the development and adoption of the MLC continue to bear fruit, it might consider giving serious attention to the implementation of those elements of the MLC that have the potential to enhance seafarers’ role in improved working conditions onboard.


  1. Talking of “leave” …..what about “SHORE LEAVE”?

    It is despicable – in the Red Sea & Gulf (Near East) etc.
    It results from the advantages taken of non-Caucasian crews in many instances.

    But we all know the reason …. MONEY – or the charges and EFFORT involved with obtaining “shore passes” .

    Could you imagine “curfews” being in place in Kiwi/Aussie/ South Africa/ Europe …when it comes to returning on board (for instance) “by midnight”. What?> !!

    The world has moved BACKWARDS; the MLC should have addressed this issue, BUT IT HAS NOT.

    Only glad that I came ashore 37 years ago!

    My commiserations to the poor sods who “carry the banner” these days..

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