9th Episode –
Maritime Labour Convention

   By Tat YEUNG  

        It is Tat Yeung again, an ex-seagoing marine engineer.

        In our daily life we use a lot of things transported to us from overseas, the vehicle you travel in, the petrol/fuel to power the vehicles, even the food on the table. Also, raw materials are transported from one country to another country to make the products.

        More than 90% of the cargoes in the world are transported by sea. It is by far the most economical means. For instance, the very large crude oil tanker I worked on years ago was able to carry 200,000 plus deadweight tonnes of crude oil. One deadweight tonne is about 7 barrels (or 1,150 litres) of crude, i.e. one shipment could transport 1,400,000 barrels (or 230,000,000 litres) of crude oil.

        The maritime industry plays a very significant role in the overall world economy. Seafarers operate ships to transport the cargoes across the oceans.

        What is your impression of a seafarer? Bad guy – womaniser, gambler, alcoholic and/or drug addict! Unfortunately, a lot of people put up a filter when looking at a seafarer. Look how easily and conveniently is brothel, gaming (another term used by politicians to mean gambling), alcohol and/or illicit drug accessible/available ashore, probably 24/7! Seafarer spends most of the time at sea. Well, who has more means and opportunity to misbehave? Play fair!

        A lot of things people ashore would take for granted but not for the seafarers. While at sea, the seafarer’s life is relatively monotonous. 24/7 operation, no weekend or holiday break, limited entertainment, lack of communication with friends/relatives, lack of fresh food, lack of medical support, very narrow and short term social circle, cultural difference/religious beliefs/language barrier amongst fellow workmates (see Note below), and virtual confinement on the ship are the real. In their daily work, they have to face occupational health and safety hazards, unpredictable dangerous weather conditions, hazards arising from the cargo, piracy, attack by armed forces of rival countries (during WWII, German submarines attacked ally unarmed merchant ships; it is still happening nowadays)… Life threatening situations are not rare.

(Note: An interesting phenomenon – seafarer A speaks loudly in his/her upbringing culture, seafarer B from another cultural background speaks softly. Even in casual conversation, seafarer B might feel bullied because person A “yells”. Complaints, if not physical conflict, follow; in particular they might encounter each other on board the ship for months.)

        Mental health issue is not uncommon. Who cares the seafarers? In fact, they are forgotten.

        People ashore may take some of the above for granted. However, in the maritime industry, the situations are more complicated. The rules of the ship’s flag State vary. Seafarers from different countries differ in their backgrounds. Seafarers from wealthy developed countries may be paid more to meet the high living cost at home with shorter contract, better travel arrangement (for instance Australian seafarers, whatever position, fly business class to join ship or repatriate home). Today, most of the countries have given up once known as “alien” rule to employ national seafarers only on board ships flying their flags. Most of the ships are now multi-national. Most of the seafarers are from developing countries.

        While seafarers from developed countries may be well cared of, seafarers from developing countries may not. In the past, seafarers in developing countries might have to offer bribes to secure a job and worked under unfair conditions such as long hours, lack of medical care, bullying

        Shore-based workers’ welfare has been cared for a long time, notably by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and respective local unions, activists and governments. How about the seafarers? In the past, ILO had some input to protecting the seafarers. Some ILO conventions, say ILO 146, 147, aimed at seafarers. However, there was not a detailed, specific and, probably legitimate convention until the Maritime Labour Convention (MLC) was adopted in 2006. Yet, it took about seven years for the convention to come into force internationally in 2013.

        The main objective of the MLC is expressed in its Article III on the fundamental rights and principles for seafarers –


Article III

        Each Member shall satisfy itself that the provisions of its law and regulations respect, in the context of this Convention, the fundamental rights to:

  1. freedom of association and the effective recognition of the right to collective bargaining;
  2. the elimination of all forms of forced or compulsory labour;
  3. the effective abolition of child labour; and
  4. the elimination of discrimination in respect of employment and occupation.


        Unless explicitly excluded, the Convention defines any person who works on board a ship is a seafarer. For instance, a harbour pilot who just guides the ship in the harbour for a short period is considered as a seafarer unless excluded by the flag State of the ship.

(Note: For example, some countries exclude cadet, being a “non-productive” trainee, as seafarer though sailing on board, as such it is not breaching the Convention if the cadet’s wages is very little or even nil; but some countries do not exclude cadet as seafarer, by definition, thus subject to the Convention.)

        At present, the Convention lists in its Appendix 5-III 16 major areas for compliance.  They are:

    1. Minimum age – persons under 16 years of age are not allowed to work on-board. Seafarers under 18 year of age are not allowed, except for training or emergency, to take up night work.
    2. Medical certification – all seafarers must be medically fit by virtue of a medical certificate to, at least, meeting the IMO convention on Standard, Training, Certification and Watchkeeping (STCW) standard.
    3. Qualifications of seafarers – all seafarers must have documentary evidence of completing basic personal safety training, and the applicable training for performing the duties assigned.
    4. Seafarers’ employment agreements – every seafarer must have a legally enforceable employment agreement, either as a personal agreement or a collective bargaining agreement; the seafarer can review to agree the agreement before signing.
    5. Use of any licensed or certified or regulated private recruitment and placement service – recruitment services are to be regulated by the respective administration; the service can be independent of any ship operator or as part of a big operator but licensed; seafarer does not pay for the recruitment service.
    6. Hours of work or rest – no less than 10 hours, at least six continuous hours out of the 10, of rest, i.e. not engaged in work for the ship, in any 24 hours period except for emergency situation; further, no less than 77 hours of rest in any seven-day period. 
      (Note: Researchers have identified that crew fatigue is a very probable contributing factor to many maritime incidents.)
    7. Manning levels for the ship – every ship must have not less than the stipulated number of seafarers with required qualifications to operate the ship safely in accordance with the flag State of the ship; usually expressed in a Minimum Safe Manning Certificate; nevertheless, MLC specifically requires at least one cook for catering.
    8. Accommodation – in general, an individual sleeping room is provided for each seafarer except for passenger ship (maximum four persons per room) and ships less than 3000 tonnes (maximum two persons per room); other requirements include lighting, ventilation, noise/vibration, sanitary, laundry/drying and hospital accommodation (a general term for all ships carrying 15 or more seafarers and engaged in a voyage of more than three days, of course, the scale varies and there could be only one bed); minimum floor area and headroom are also specified.
    9. On-board recreational facilities – in consultation with the flag State, the ship has to provide appropriate recreational facilities on board; there is no specific requirement but the type of recreational facilities agreed with the flag State would be documented.
    10. Food and catering – the ship must provide, free of charge, the seafarers food of appropriate quality, nutritional value and quantity taking into account the differing cultural and religious backgrounds.
      (Note: Unless amended in future, MLC requires the ship to provide appropriate drinking water but, unlike the case of food, it is silent if the water is free of charge i.e. the ship may charge for drinking water hopefully at a reasonable price.)
    11. Health and safety and accident prevention – including risk evaluation of work, measures to protect seafarers, records, reporting incidents and investigation of incidents.
    12. On-board medical care – besides providing the hospital accommodation with medical chest, a qualified medical doctor is required on board ships carrying 100 persons or more; most cargo ships carry less than 100 persons that at least one seafarer on board has been trained to be in charge of medical care and administering medicine; shore based medical advice is available 24 hours a day; medical care is at no cost to the seafarers.
      (Note: Seafarer may request, at no cost, to consult a doctor or even a dentist ashore while the ship is in a port.)
    13. On-board complaint procedures – the ship is required to establish complaint procedures for the fair, effective and expeditious handling of seafarer complaints alleging breaches of the requirements of the MLC; each seafarer will be given a copy of the procedures.
      (Note: Seafarer can still make complaints directly to shore based bodies such as the port authorities, unions (one prominent body is the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF)); however, the Convention encourages seafarers to use the on-board complaint procedures in the first instance.)
    14. Payment of wages – wages as per the employment agreement of every seafarer are to be paid in full at intervals not more than one month; the seafarer may arrange part of the wages to be banked to a shore based financial institution account for the family member to debit, termed “home allotment”, at no cost to the seafarer; this is important to upkeep the seafarer’s family; any remaining amount is credited to the seafarer’s account on board that the seafarer may ask for cash when the ship arrives a port.
    15. Financial security for repatriation – seafarer is entitled to repatriation upon completion of the contract, medical ground or agreed mutually with the shipowner at no cost; however an amendment in MLC specifies that the shipowner has to secure financially, usually by means of an insurance policy, that in the case of the ship being abandoned, for instance when the shipowner had bankrupted, the seafarers would be repatriated to home at no cost.
    16. Financial security relating to shipowner’s liability – the shipowner has to secure financially, again usually by means of an insurance policy, for fulfilling the contractual liability as per the employment agreements; an amendment specifies that from December 2020, the seafarer’s contract, while the seafarer is kept in piracy captivity, is taken to be continuous that, at least, the seafarer’s family would continue to receive home allotment to survive.
      (Note: There had been cases that the seafarers kept in piracy captivity for years before released. Their families might be struggling hard to survive without the home allotments. This amendment specifically protecting seafarers held captive will come into force on 20 Dec 2020.)

        The above are highlights of the fundamentals to protect the seafarers’ rights. There are others such as the right for shore leave. The on-board complaint procedure, the right to launch complaint directly to the port authorities/unions (upon receipt of the complaint the port authority of member States must investigate as per the Convention), port State control inspections and flag State control inspections would see the enforcement of the Convention for protecting seafarers’ employment conditions/rights. A fair go!

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