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Tuesday, 20 August 2013 01:00

Ensuring seafarers aren't left high and dry

by Andrew Linington

Why the Maritime Labour Convention is such an important milestone for those who work at sea

As I write this, maritime unions and welfare workers are trying to secure the payment of months of owed wages and provide food and water to the eastern European crews of two ships stranded in British south coast ports.

They are, sadly, just the tip of a massive iceberg of seafarers in need around the world - having to turn to unions or charities after being abandoned in ports thousands of miles from their homes.

Working in the world's most globalised industries, seafarers have long been exposed to shocking levels of exploitation and abuse.

The expansion of the flag of convenience system in the second half of the 20th century saw unscrupulous shipowners exploiting loopholes in global regulation to undercut standards of safety and to introduce a "pick and mix" employment system which has left most of the world's 1.2 million seafarers sailing on voyage-to-voyage contracts and in constant fear of being replaced by cheaper labour.

But today sees a milestone in the struggle to provide decent living and working conditions to the international shipping industry.

Dubbed "the seafarers' bill of rights," the Maritime Labour Convention 2006 (MLC) has come into force - and maritime unions like Nautilus hope that it will mark a turning point for our members.

Nautilus was deeply involved in the decade-long process of negotiating the MLC and we believe the outcome not only offers new hope to the world's seafarers but also provides a template for dealing with some of the complex challenges thrown up by the process of globalisation.

In no other industry are the challenges so complex as in shipping. Seafarers' workplaces are not just highly mobile - and therefore subject to different jurisdictions, depending on their location - they can also serve as their effective homes, often for many months in a row.

And today there is commonly no connection between the country in which a ship is owned and the country whose flag it flies or from where its crew live.

Historically, there have been well-intentioned but often ineffectual efforts to control this cocktail and to close the loopholes it offers to substandard operators.

The MLC attempts to do this by creating one single "super-convention" to replace 68 old International Labour Organisation instruments whose adoption around the world had been patchy.

It aims to be the "fourth pillar" of international regulation of shipping, alongside core conventions setting standards for safety at sea, environmental protection and seafarer training and certification.

Unions hope it will serve as a "one-stop shop" for labour standards, covering just about every aspect of work at sea - from minimum age to hours of work and rest, onboard accommodation and food, payment of wages, paid annual leave and health protection and welfare.

Under the MLC, every seafarer has the right to:

A safe and secure workplace that complies with safety standards

Fair terms of employment

Decent working and living conditions onboard ship

Health protection, medical care, welfare measures and other forms of social protection.

In the fiercely competitive global maritime labour market, the MLC aims to curb the worst excesses by setting universal standards covering such critical issues as the obligations of shipping companies for seafarers' contractual arrangements and the responsibilities of the crewing agencies who supply the vast majority of the world's seafarers.

It even sets out an agreed process for handling seafarers' complaints - including the rights to "whistleblow" to authorities ashore if problems are not dealt with properly onboard.

Shipping is a vital industry, which moves more than 90 per cent of world trade and makes our modern lives possible by carrying essential commodities between countries.

The convention will apply to the vast majority of ships operating on international and regional voyages.

Exceptions include those navigating exclusively in inland waters or ports, those engaged, and traditional vessels such as dhows and junks.

Determined that the convention will not be a paper tiger, the International Labour Organisation negotiations resulted in a global system to police its requirements.

Every ship over 500 gross tons operating in international waters or between ports of different countries will have to have a maritime labour certificate issued by its flag state following an inspection.

There will also be a requirement for ships to complete and maintain onboard a declaration of maritime labour compliance.

Port-based inspectors will be able to check for compliance - looking at the seafarers' living and working conditions at the same time as scrutinising the safety and environmental standards.

Ships that are found to be in breach of the rules can be detained in port until the problems are rectified.

To enter into force, the MLC had to be ratified by at least 30 countries with at least 33 per cent of the world's gross shipping tonnage on their books. The tonnage requirement was met in 2009, and 43 countries accounting for around 75 per cent of world tonnage have now ratified - with Britain signing up on August 8 this year.

"The speed and scope of ratifications is remarkable, given that the requirements for its entry into force were intentionally made the most stringent of any ILO convention," says Cleopatra Doumbia-Henry, director of the international labour standards department of the ILO.

It has taken well over a decade to reach this point, and the unions' struggle is far from finished.

We have to continue fighting to ensure the MLC is applied without fear or favour to all vessels, regardless of whether their flag state has ratified or not.

One of the core aims of the convention is to create fair competition by preventing shady shipowners from undercutting those who run their vessels to acceptable standards.

And we have to put pressure on those countries - such as the United States - which still haven't ratified.

Universal implementation will give this convention the force it deserves and help ensure that seafarers everywhere finally get the rights and recognition that they need and deserve and which, sadly, too many have been denied for too long.

Andrew Linington is director of campaigns and communications at Nautilus International

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