Why the MLC is failing as a regulatory response to the Covid-19 global pandemic

Carolyn Graham on the real weaknesses of the Maritime Labour Convention, and how to fix them.

In a January 13, 2021 bulletin, Transport Canada indicated that it will be enforcing the repatriation and contract duration provisions of the Maritime Labour Convention (MLC). This is yet another unilateral initiative to address the crew change crisis resulting from the Covid-19 pandemic.

Earlier, Australia had also indicated a similar response to begin the end of February this year. These gestures are welcome and might have some impact for ships calling at such ports. However, they are unlikely to have a significant impact on the broader crisis because seafarers themselves are not empowered by the MLC to take meaningful action.

Since the crisis began, many unilateral, regional and international efforts have been devised to create some relief to seafarers stranded at sea – in many cases, going on 17 months. Some of these efforts consist of ‘calls to action’ and invoke the relevant provisions of the MLC as the seafarers’ ‘Bill of Rights.’ However, the situation continues to deteriorate: From around summer of 2020 there were reports of some 300 000 being stuck at sea. By the end of the year this number had risen to 400 000. Additionally, some seafarers are forced to stay at home, yet are desperate to get to work as bills pile up and no clear end to the crisis is in sight.

This pandemic has shown us the weaknesses in labour regulatory regimes where workers are not enabled to take action at the workplace level

What this pandemic has shown us, among other things, are the weaknesses in labour regulatory regimes where workers are not enabled to take action at the workplace level, particularly actions to effectively protect their safety and health. The crew change crisis is a grave matter of safety and health at work. An early criticism of the MLC points to the lack of provisions enabling seafarers to strike. Without some enabling provisions, the other rights offered by the MLC become meaningless. In my own research on the MLC, I found that despite the input at the international level, particularly in the form of representation from the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF), seafarers do not have a work environment that enables the type of action at shipboard level that would bring relief in a crisis of this nature.

Working without relief in a global pandemic is tantamount to dangerous work. The ITF’s call mid-2020 for seafarers to stop working, while commendable, achieved far less than is necessary to solve the problem. Stopping work might be the ideal solution but it will not take hold as seafarers are not sufficiently empowered by a firm regulatory lead. Had this ITF initiative been successful, it would have resulted in a halt to global trade. It appears that once trade continues, efforts to find a solution will continue to be piecemeal and top-down, while not fully addressing the problem.

Further, coordinated efforts by flag states cannot be relied on, because even as some countries seek solutions, others might be contributing to the problem. Panama, the largest registry for example, early in the crisis allegedly allowed the extension of seafarers’ employment agreement beyond that allowed under the MLC. Its back-pedalling, after being called out, does not offer much comfort, as under normal circumstances, this registry has a poor record of protecting seafarers’ wellbeing. How far does ITF influence extend to offer some support to such seafarers, who might not even belong to a local union affiliated with the ITF?

Stopping dangerous work is an enabling provision in land-based regulations, and is supported by the institution of worker representation on safety and health. Properly constituted, this is one way of giving workers some autonomy over their working conditions. Yet this is missing from the MLC. The global community is concerned with world trade facilitation, and transport has proven to be essential to get goods to consumers in lockdown. When this is interrupted, we all suffer the consequences. In the current state of affairs, seafarers bear the bulk of this burden. Taking actions to stop work should shift this burden ashore and would be an effective way to send a clear message that seafarers are essential workers and should be treated with more care.

Going forward, the maritime industry should seize the opportunity to be bold. A crisis this unprecedented demands an equal response. The time is right to craft the kind of regulatory regime that gives seafarers meaningful platforms from which to act, particularly in protecting their safety and health. Seafarers’ unions should also seek to strengthen their affiliations regionally and internationally to be able to more effectively support their members. We have seen that top-down approaches alone do not work. However, enabling regulations and actions from the workplace level in combination might be the way to achieve concrete results.


  1. I couldn’t have said it any better. The fact that the one instrument created to protect seafarers health and wellbeing is failing them requires us to take another look at how to strengthen its provisions and or scrap it and start over.

    Clearly, if seafarers had put down their gloves and tools, this crisis would have been resolved 6 months ago. I believe this goes to show us all that the problem is with the system created. When capital flees it shores to hire labor from countries with little opportunities for its people, they are in essence, slaves to the system. The FOC system is the problem as we have been saying for the last 70+ years.

    Until the system is eliminated or seafarers stand up for themselves, it will always be this way!

    1. I agree. This has been going on for so long and it can be better. I am seeing (from Splash website alone) all the acquisitions etc which suggests that money is being made and to spend some on the people who are making this money for them seems so difficult, it is sad.

      1. Whilst action to improve the situation currently being endured by far too many seafarers and their families would be welcome, providing legal protections for strike action – which many seafarers will be in no position to engage in – will not eliminate the real reason for the seemingly never ending abuse of many seafarers’, the spectre that continues to haunt the industry, the Flag of Convenience system itself. Far too many FOC States have ratified MLC 2006 in terms of doing the paperwork and rubber stamping it only. Enforcement is often non-existent. In terms of exceeding contract periods during the pandemic, this was the case for many prior to the pandemic. MLC 2006 states that seafarers are ENTITLED to repatriation after a maximum period. If a seafarer’s future employment is threatened by an operator in order to persuade the seafarer not to take up that entitlement then the seafarer faces a real dilemma. Many will decide they have no choice but to extend and in most jurisdictions nothing can be done about this. Imagine if hundreds of factories and offices ashore locked the doors and windows and said the workers can’t go home, the pandemic doesn’t allow it. There would be riots. It would be unthinkable ashore. My personal view is that all those who continue to facilitate the continuance of this enslaving system are culpable in terms of the outcomes it produces.

    2. Continued work/talk between a government that understand and local SIUCanada/ITF made this result possible. We kept in mind the seafarers’ realities and our moral obligations toward those that carry the world economy. When engaging in tripartite negations at the ILO, this situation was unpredictable. I am sure we will find a way to fix this international loop hole.

  2. Excellent commentary and I fully agree with all his points made. This problem could have been resolved months ago. It is a conscious choice made by many parties involved to imprison crews aboard ships well beyond their contract. The evidence is ample and can be seen if one simply looks around. I go aboard ships in Honolulu where certain crew (third world country unlicensed ratings) are prohibited from leaving a ship and going home. Yet, certain other crew (Officers of certain Asian nations) are free to come and go as their contracts require.

    This whole issue appears to me as one big fake news problem that has been “created” in an effort to save money at a time when owners are losing money.

  3. Stop all shipping and operations for a few days if not months and that would only solve this shameful inhuman treatment towards seafarers. Only when losses are noticed ashore will governments, shipowners, managers, charterers wake up from their deep brain dead sleep. Seafarers don’t do this because of the fright of loosing their livelihood. Expose this situation on all main stream media instead of informing the world about trivial political situations in the US, Europe or elsewhere. We seafarers are not interested in who the president of the US is or how vaccines are killing people or if Russia is the bad guy. When onboard whatever nationality, we are a team.

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