WORLDWIDE – When ship owners and representatives of seafaring workers met in 2001 they unanimously agreed that shipping is the first truly global industry and, as such, a set of rules to ensure minimum standards applicable on a global scale. With the support of many Governments it was decided to create a major new Maritime Labour Convention (MLC) under the auspices of the International Labour Organization (ILO), to come into force when ratified by a minimum of thirty member states together holding a share of at least one third of the world’s vessel tonnage. With around 90% of all global trade carried by ocean freight the intention was to consolidate dozens of varying standards evolved over the previous eight decades worldwide.
It took five years before the MLC was properly set out and agreed with the intention of achieving both decent work standards for seafarers whilst securing the economic interests in fair competition for quality fleet owners. The magic total of thirty ILO states became a reality this year with the ratification by Russia and the Philippines and the global tonnage total of those signed up to the Convention now stands at almost 60%. Now the way is clear for MLC 2006 to enter into force in just 12 months’ time in August 2013, and, whilst wholeheartedly welcoming the news, transport unions and merchant fleet employers associations have sounded a note of caution to ship owners and operators.
The International Transport Workers Federation (ITF) and International Shipping Federation (ISF) are ILO social partners and this week have jointly warned that ship owners will need to ensure they are ready before the new regime of global labour standards comes into force. Significantly, the MLC will be subject to port state control, including the potential for more detailed inspections if ships are thought not to comply, and the possibility of detention in serious cases of non-compliance or where hazardous conditions exist. The ITF and ISF emphasise that the MLC 2006 has been dubbed the ‘fourth pillar’ of shipping regulation, alongside the IMO SOLAS, MARPOL and STCW Conventions, and as such is likely to be strictly enforced by flag states and port authorities.
An important feature of the Convention’s enforcement will be the issue of ‘Maritime Labour Certificates’ by flag administrations following an inspection. There is also a requirement for ships to complete and maintain on board a ‘Declaration of Maritime Labour Compliance’. The MLC addresses a wide range of matters, including the obligations of shipping companies with respect to seafarers’ contractual arrangements, the responsibilities of manning agencies, working hours, health and safety, crew accommodation, catering standards, and seafarers’ welfare. Dave Heindel, chair of the ITF Seafarers’ Section, commented:
“The MLC – the seafarers’ bill of rights – is a genuine agent for real change. It has the potential to make a real difference to all seafarers, regardless of nationality or the flag of the ship on which they serve. Its entry into force will be the culmination of over 10 years of collective effort by the ILO social partners. At last, we will have a ‘one stop shop’ for labour standards which we are confident will be genuinely implemented and enforced on a global basis. It means that all seafarers should soon be able to enjoy comprehensive protection of their fundamental rights. It also means good employment practice across the industry so that responsible employers, as represented by ISF, are not disadvantaged by the irresponsible minority.”
Under the tripartite ILO process, ITF and ISF were responsible for negotiating the text of the new Convention with governments, on behalf of maritime employers and seafarers’ trade unions, prior to its adoption in 2006. ITF and ISF therefore are keen to see the smooth implementation of the MLC 2006 when it enters into force in 2013. ISF Labour Affairs Committee Chairman, Arthur Bowring, commented:
“Governments are to be congratulated for ratifying the MLC so quickly. This is a Convention with a very wide scope, incorporating labour and social security requirements, and therefore requires detailed study and potential amendment of local legislation to bring it into effect. We expect many more countries will ratify the Convention over the coming year, so that entry into force will be backed up by truly worldwide enforcement. This Convention is the result of tripartite negotiation over a lengthy period, which means that the labour standards which we have all agreed can be supported by governments, ship owners and seafarers giving us a uniform global framework of sound employment standards that is required by both ship owners and seafarers.
“The vast majority of companies should have no difficulty complying with the substance of the Convention, since in large part this is derived from existing ILO maritime standards and accepted good employment practice. However, the enforcement mechanism is new, and it will be important to avoid teething problems when some of the more detailed requirements are applied and interpreted. It will therefore be most important for all ship operators to ensure that they are ready.”
All concerned are justifiably proud that what appears to be a unification of global standards has been achieved and will mean doubtless more pressure, particularly by unions, on states who are seen to be avoiding ratification and employing lower levels of working practices, possibly sacrificing safety and fairness for profit. The ISF and ITF representatives appear in no doubt the difficulties they may face in the future to properly implement and police the Convention but are hopeful it will improve the situation of all involved. Dave Heindel concluded:
“The shipping industry is almost certainly unique in having such a comprehensive global framework of employment standards, which is supported on all sides. While there will be lot to do to ensure that the standards are properly enforced in a year’s time, I think this is a moment when all concerned can take credit for what has been achieved by the adoption of the MLC, 2006, and the really tangible benefits that this will bring both to ship owners and the seafarers they employ.”