TALKING POINT: Important steps for seafarers’ welfare at latest MLC meeting

July 27, 2022
Crew 5

Each month, we are sharing a discussion piece written by a member of the maritime industry who can offer a unique or interesting perspective on an aspect of seafarers’ welfare. You can join the conversation on our social media channels – Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

The latest Special Tripartite Committee (STC) meeting was held in Geneva in May, where a number of changes were agreed to improve seafarers’ conditions. Nautilus International’s Director of Legal Services, Charles Boyle, gives an account of what happened at the meeting and why the changes are significant to seafarers.

Charles Boyle has been the Director of Legal Services at Nautilus since October 2007. During that time Charles has had much involvement on MLC-related issues, at UK, EU and ILO levels. He is a member of the UK’s tripartite working group on implementing the MLC and its amendments into UK law; he advises and assists the ETF on MLC/EU law issues, and also attends the MLC Special Tripartite Committees at the ILO as an adviser to the ITF, where he has served on drafting committees on MLC amendments. Charles is the author of: ‘Maritime Labour Convention 2006 – UK and REG Implementation’, published by Bloomsbury Professional.

In May, I attended the Fourth Meeting of the Special Tripartite Committee of the Maritime Labour Convention, 2006, as amended (MLC, 2006) in Geneva as part of the Seafarers’ Group.

The MLC guarantees key rights for seafarers, including the right to obtain a Seafarers Employment Agreement (SEA), the right to repatriation, the right to certain protections relating to wages, and rights relating to medical care.

The MLC is a 'living instrument', amended through meetings of the Special Tripartite Committee (STC) of seafarer representatives, governments and shipowners. It contains express provisions for the continuous improvement of seafarers' living and working conditions. The proof of this has been that we have now been through four STC meetings at the ILO, and all of these meetings have led to amendments to bring the MLC up to date with the needs of seafarers and address specific problems.

After COVID-19, representatives from industry, government and labour came together in Geneva this May to negotiate amendments to the Maritime Labour Convention 2006 (MLC) and fix issues identified during the pandemic.

I was delighted to be involved in such an important piece of work; opportunities like this don’t come around very often and the STC meetings are a key forum for positive and meaningful changes to provisions for seafarers’ welfare.

The Seafarers’ Group was very effectively led by Nautilus general secretary Mark Dickinson on this occasion. We had put forward a suite of proposals, some of them jointly with shipowners and some on our own. I felt optimistic we would get at least some of what we were looking for, and we did indeed win on some very important points.

Wages arrears was a particular problem during the pandemic. I think one of the most important amendments we got is one that will protect wages and hopefully give seafarers more chance of recovering wages in future.

This is a requirement for seafarer recruitment and placement services to provide seafarers with information about the system of protection that these services are required to hold in case shipowners default on their obligations towards seafarers. We therefore hope there's more transparency there and as a result more seafarers will be able to go after recruitment agents if wages are outstanding.

There is now also a requirement that states ensure prompt access to shore-based medical treatment for seafarers. They also cannot refuse this access due to public health reasons – meaning that they won't be able to prevent treatment of seafarers due to a pandemic situation, as has happened with COVID-19.

Another very important amendment was the insertion of new paragraph into the repatriation provisions of the MLC, requiring members to facilitate the prompt repatriation of seafarers, even when they have been abandoned in port. We wanted this because some port states have been slow to repatriate because they do not want an empty ship left there. We have now made clear that we expect prompt action and that before port states can just replace those seafarers on the abandoned ships they need to establish cooperation with other involved states to ensure that the seafarers replacing them are still accorded their MLC rights.

Some aspects of these negotiations were particularly tense. There were two amendments we had to 'park' because the shipowners simply wouldn't agree to them. The major one was that the shipowners would not agree to inserting a statement in the MLC that the maximum period of time onboard a ship before a seafarer had a right to be repatriated is 11 months. This endangers seafarers and the marine environment through increasing fatigue. Further work will be done through other means to address these particular problems.

Overall, the hard work put in at the STC meeting felt worth it. Although there is still more to be done, we emerged with some key wins for seafarers.

Importantly, the MLC provides for proper implementation and enforcement of seafarers’ rights. If seafarers believe that their rights are being violated, they can get in touch with their trade union or ITF inspector for advice and assistance. There are also a number of avenues they can go down in terms of self-help, including the MLC onboard and onshore complaints procedures, and reporting infringements to the port state and flag state.

Text of the amendments adopted on 13 May 2022 at the Fourth Meeting of the Special Tripartite Committee of the Maritime Labour Convention, 2006, as amended (MLC, 2006) – Part II (5-13 May 2022) can be downloaded here.

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