The so-called seafarer bill of rights is due to be updated. Suggested changes need to be filed with the International Labour Organization by next week. Chief correspondent Jason Jiang looks at what could be on the agenda.
Anyone with suggestions as to how to improve the lot of the seafarer has just one week to get his or her thoughts heard by the powers that be. The Maritime Labour Convention (MLC), known as the seafarers’ bill of rights, is due to be amended in April next year with all suggestions from signatories to the bill due in at the Geneva headquarters of the International Labour Organization (ILO) by October 1.
The MLC is considered as a major milestone in realising the rights of seafarers since it entered into force in 2013. However, there have been increasing calls for amendments to the convention in order to keep it up to date with the changes in the global shipping environment, especially with advances in technology as well as the stresses and strains brought about by the pandemic situation this year.
The MLC lacks expedient enforcement mechanisms and remedy procedures
The MLC is an ILO convention that was established in 2006 as the fourth pillar of international maritime law following SOLAS, STCW and MARPOL, and it embodies all standards of existing international maritime labour conventions and recommendations, as well as the fundamental principles to be found in other international labour conventions.
The convention entered into force on August 20 2013 and as of September 2019, the convention had been ratified by 97 states representing over 91% of global shipping.
The signatories now have until next Thursday to propose to ILO any amendments.
Ben Bailey, director of advocacy and regional engagement at The Mission to Seafarers reckons that the MLC has brought huge benefits to seafarers around the world, but the fact that it is not in force everywhere means that too many crews are falling through the gap, particularly when they find themselves abandoned, and a significant change to the convention would be for the international community to work to enforce the convention and to put pressure on those states which have not signed up to the MLC to do so.
Access to internet at sea has been among the biggest gripes for crew
“When seafarers contact us for assistance, all too often it transpires that they have had to pay a recruiter for their place onboard. While many countries have outlawed this practice, as per the MLC, The Mission to Seafarers would like to see increased auditing of these practices to protect crews from being unfairly charged,” says Bailey.
Bailey also points out that many seafarers have worked well beyond the standard 11-month long contracts during the pandemic and one thing that really impacts welfare under the situation is the kind of welfare provisions that are recognised as rights in the MLC.
Bailey is aware of the fact that seafarers currently have the right to access welfare facilities in ports – physical buildings and places, but they do not have a right to access welfare providers such as chaplains and port welfare officers. Over the past few months, this distinction has cut off seafarers from the welfare provision that should be available, as access to the facilities has been restricted. Contact with welfare providers is still possible, but not recognised as a right. Where seafarers have been unable to access port facilities, changing this definition of welfare in the MLC would therefore make a significant difference.
“We would like to see greater clarity within the convention to define welfare not just as bricks and mortar facilities, but to include access to professional providers of welfare – such as chaplains, counsellors and support workers to ensure seafarers have the support and protection they need and deserve,” Bailey says.
Catherine Spencer, chief executive officer of charity Seafarers UK says the organisation is calling for all incidents and accidents at sea, and on merchant vessels in ports, in which seafarers are injured or die to be promptly reported by flag states in a transparent manner, so that lessons can be learned and shared.
Spencer says that Seafarers UK is lobbying for seafarer suicides to be honestly and accurately reported, as there is an increasing volume of anecdotal evidence that seafarers’ mental health problems are exacerbated by their work patterns and workplace environments, resulting in a growing number of seafarers taking their own lives. But the true scale of this problem is currently unknown.
“Seafarers UK will be calling for the MLC to be modified so suicides at sea must be reported promptly and in a transparent manner,” Spencer says.
Seafarers UK believes that all merchant seafarers should have free internet access for use at all times when they are not actually working and all seafarers on merchant vessels should be deemed to be ‘key workers’ by all countries, while the benefits packages for merchant seafarers should be at least comparable to those offered to people who work ashore.
In countless seafarer surveys in recent years, access to internet at sea has been among the biggest gripes for the hundreds of thousands of men and women working on the world’s merchant fleet.
This important point is one keenly advocated by Guy Platten, secretary general of the International Chamber of Shipping (ICS).
“First and foremost,” he tells Splash, “we need governments to adhere to the commitments they have already made under the MLC. We have seen far too many examples of governments ignoring their existing commitments under the MLC during this coronavirus pandemic. This leaves seafarers without the backing they deserve and leaves shipowners without the support they need to safely facilitate crew change. Addressing this issue must be the priority.”
David Heindel, chair of the International Transport Workers’ Federation’s Seafarers’ Section argues that the MLC is a living document made to be updated from time to time to remain relevant to changes within the industry, and modern community expectations around labour standards and practices. The 14-year-old instrument has some areas that are in need of strengthening, he argues.
“One important area for improvement, which has been highlighted during the Covid-19 pandemic, is enforcement. The MLC lacks expedient enforcement mechanisms and remedy procedures if and when the MLC’s provisions are breached by a company, or even by a country,” Heindel suggests.
Heindel criticises certain port states and flag states – even some home countries of major seafarer providers – for ignoring their responsibilities to support seafarer repatriation upon completion of their contracts during the present crew change crisis. There are more than 300,000 seafarers trapped working aboard vessels worldwide beyond their contracts and an equal number unemployed at home waiting to join ships.
“Realising the rights of seafarers to crew change necessarily requires governments to introduce travel, transit and border exemptions for seafarers to get to and from ships. However, most governments have not done this. The world should be asking what are the consequences for states which ignore seafarers’ human rights?,” Heindel warns.
Beyond enforcement and crew changes, Heindel reckons other areas which could be addressed in reforms to the MLC include seafarers’ medical care and protocols; social security; shore leave; contract length; and skill development.
Splash will be reporting on the changes to the MLC in the months ahead.
The MLC changes also featured strongly in recent Splash TV episodes with Brandt Wagner, the ILO’s point man for shipping, discussing what amendments might be on the cards and Wallem boss Frank Coles bringing up issues such as work/rest hours and wifi onboard.