Seafarers’ groups have won the right to mandatory social connectivity for crews – including internet access – in updates to the Maritime Labour Convention 2006 (MLC), but are disappointed that shipowners and governments may seek to charge for it.
The MLC is an international treaty designed to protect seafarers’ rights and has been ratified by more than 100 countries, who represent over 90% of the world fleet. One of its provisions is that governments, shipowners and seafarer representatives meet periodically to keep the convention under review and up to date. The latest Special Tripartite Committee (STC) meeting ended in Geneva on 13 May, with agreement on a number of changes including a commitment to better social connectivity for seafarers.
'We’ve learned a lot during the Covid period and that has been driving us to improve the MLC,' said Mark Dickinson, vice chair of the International Transport Workers’ Federation’s (ITF) Seafarers’ Section, STC vice-president and spokesperson for the Seafarers Group.
'Working for long periods at sea can be isolating,' Dickinson said, 'And a lack of contact with the outside world can have profound implications for seafarers’ wellbeing - which we saw the worst effects of during Covid.'
'Being able to keep in touch with family and friends isn’t just a nice-to-have, it’s a basic human right. That’s why we fought so hard for seafarers to be given internet access and to have a mandatory provision in the MLC.'
Despite the fact that ships already have the technology to provide internet access, shipowners insisted that they should be able to limit access and be able to charge seafarers for internet connectivity.
The Seafarers Group lobbied to ensure that any charges levied on seafarers remain an exception, and if any charges are imposed that they are reasonable. Governments were also encouraged to increase internet access in ports and associated anchorages without cost to seafarers.
The meeting failed to reach agreement on changes to the MLC’s terms on repatriation under the MLC that were being demanded by the Seafarers Group. The Seafarers Group demanded that the breadth of shipowners’ responsibility to repatriate seafarers at the end of their contracts be extended to the point at which seafarers land at their home location.
For most seafarers, the journey home is considerably longer than shipowners currently cover. A Filipino, for example, who lives in Davao may find themselves dumped at Manila Airport 1,600 miles away from home. They then have a subsequent air journey of around 2.5 hours, costing them P2,500–3,000. In that final leg, the employer is no longer covering insurance, medical or other costs.
A group of EU governments also sought an amendment to ensure a clearer commitment to the de facto maximum period of service of 11 months that seafarers can serve at sea before shipowners are obliged to get them home. Shipowners, and some governments, insisted on flexibility and requiring seafarers 12 months' sea time to qualify, especially for trainees. The Seafarers Group refused to concede, citing fatigue and safety concerns.
The STC did agree a number of significant changes to the MLC, including:
- Personal protective equipment must be made available in sizes that suit seafarers onboard, including for women.
- Improved access to free drinking water, quality provisions and balanced diets were agreed as part of food and catering rules.
- Clarification on responsibilities for governments to provide information to seafarers on mandatory systems of protection that must be put in place by recruitment and placement agencies.
The STC also adopted several resolutions that will guide the future work of the Committee. These included further work on the eradication of sexual harassment at sea, the sustainability of the financial security provisions provided by P&I Clubs and insurers, and the ability of seafarers to enforce seafarers’ employment agreements against shipowners.