The future of seafarer’s rights

Investment by the maritime industry must encompass both technology and crew

New technology and safety often go hand in hand, with one influencing the other. There are many systems designed to improve asset safety – AIS systems, sensors on engines, and satellite communications, but the question is: why are we willing to invest in this technology but not our seafarers?

Over the past five years there has been an average of 17 crew abandonment incidents reported annually involving 1,013 seafarers, according to the International Labour Organization (ILO). To date, there have been 26 incidents recorded on ILO’s database of abandonment of seafarers.

Speaking to SAS, Tommy Molloy, ship inspector for Nautilus International and the International Transport Worker’s Federation (ITF), said that he believed flag states should take a more proactive stance in cases of seafarer abandonment. “When crew come together and say they are considered to be abandoned and the Maritime Labour Convention [MLC] 2006 to be breached, flag states should step in and say that shipowner is now off their register.”

Molloy said that while the ITF can and does insist on ILO minimum wages being paid, that it does not have the responsibility to enforce the rules. “That is the responsibility of the flag state in the final analysis. The issue is the reluctance of some flag states to meet that responsibility,” he explained.

The International Maritime Organization (IMO) developed MLC 2006 to establish minimum working and living standards for all seafarers, covering almost all issues of working on board, from hours of work and rest to seafarer complaint handling. It was adopted by the ILO in February 2006. In 2014, amendments to MLC 2006 sought to better protect seafarers against abandonment. Among the changes that came into force this January, it is now compulsory for shipowners to have insurance in place so they can compensate seafarers and their families if they have been abandoned, as well as in the event of the death or long-term disability of seafarers due to a work injury or illness.

This is positive progress but cases of seafarer abandonment are still continuing, with it often being the same repeat offenders. “The owners involved tend to be small operations, either entered with fixed-premium providers or don’t bother with insurance,” Amanda Hastings, trustee at Human Rights at Sea, told SAS.

While MLC 2006 does not protect seafarers against abandonment, Hastings stressed that it does provide crew with “recourse”, including a process of reporting and handling seafarers’ complaints.

Seafarers’ Rights International (SRI) provides guidance to seafarers on what legal action they can take should they find themselves in a situation that breaches their rights and contravenes the MLC. It recommends that if seafarers feel their rights under the MLC have been breached, to confidentially complain to a security officer, the ship master, the shipowner, or port state control on shore.

SRI has developed a useful guidance video about how to make a complaint. It advises that all seafarers have a written employment agreement signed by them and their employer that covers repatriation in the event of abandonments. If abandoned crew want to seek outside help, SRI recommends getting in touch with the port state control authority, the flag state of the ship, their embassy, various government departments in the port state, the ITF, their local trade union, various welfare organisations, and a local lawyer.

The MLC 2006 is constantly being reviewed and amended in a bid to provide as much protection to seafarers' working rights as possible. There is still work to be done, much of which will be highlighted by the SRI’s major study into the effectiveness of the MLC, due to be completed xxx[to be confirmed by SRI]. With such efforts being made, let us hope that the future not only holds the promise of technology to make a safer shipping sector, but one that also ensures all seafarers’ rights are protected.

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