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Universal support for an amended Maritime Labour Convention at LISW

17 September 2021

The Maritime Labour Convention (MLC) must be amended in light of the challenges faced by seafarers during the pandemic, yet its status as a unique piece of international legislation protecting workers should not be forgotten, according to speakers at an event held by Seafarers' Rights International (SRI) during London International Shipping Week.

The event – titled 'Future Proofing the Maritime Labour Convention' – was held ahead of the upcoming release of comprehensive SRI research into the MLC, which looked into the effectiveness of its implementation and enforcement.

The high-profile list of speakers included IMO secretary general Kitack Lim; SRI advisory board chairman and former Nautilus general secretary Brian Orrell; International Transport Workers' Federation (ITF) general secretary Stephen Cotton; International Chamber of Shipping secretary general Guy Platten; Beatriz Vacotto of the International Labour Organization (ILO); Luc Smulders, secretary general of the Paris MoU on Port State Control; and representatives from the Philippines, the Maldives and Indonesia.

Video messages were also supplied by those who could not attend, including UK maritime minister Robert Courts, President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines and Cleopatra Doumbia-Henry, president of World Maritime University, who has been called the 'mother of the Maritime Labour Convention'.

Gratitude to seafarers

This diverse collection of attendees expressed their gratitude to seafarers for their unprecedented contribution during the Covid-19 pandemic, and their regret that the situation is not yet resolved.

'Seafarers are still striving to leave their ships and travel, still striving for access to medical care. This can literally be a matter of life and death,' said Mr Lim of the IMO.

He said that, in light of what has happened over the past 18 months, the IMO will add an eighth strategic direction to its strategic plan which will focus on the 'human element'.

There was also concern, based on recent research, that the sector will suffer labour shortages unless conditions can be significantly improved.

Many of the panellists called for the world's remaining countries to officially designate seafarers as key workers.

Universal support for the MLC

There was universal support for the MLC at the summit, despite the suffering of seafarers during the pandemic. Several emphasised the unique nature of this document in international law and the collaboration between government, industry and social organisations that made it possible, with Mr Cotton of the ITF noting that 'the shipowners and unions were able to build the only ILO convention that has global teeth'.

Mr Orrell emphasised both its widespread adoption and the good it has done in the past: 'At the moment we have 98 countries that have ratified, representing over 90% of world tonnage … there are hundreds of thousands who benefited, who could read and know what their rights were.'

Others were keen to say that, despite the fact seafarers have often found their rights ignored during the pandemic, the MLC was written as a 'living document' that can now be amended and improved to prevent the same issues occurring in future – and is the best vehicle for doing so.

David Heindel, chair of the ITF Seafarers' Section, summed up this sentiment, saying: 'The MLC has been referred to as the "seafarers' bill of rights" and should be a success story, but what we have seen is that it's useless if it's ignored and not enforced. However, the fact is the Convention is a Convention and we need to make it work. Putting it aside is not going to provide the seafarers with what they are entitled to.'

Upcoming amendments

Many of those present were keen to emphasise the unprecedented steps they had taken to address the challenges of Covid, such as national vaccination policies, the creation of crew change hubs, and the UN resolution calling on all countries to recognise seafarers as keyworkers.

However, all recognised that seafarers have suffered unfair and unbearable treatment, including unsafe tour lengths, and that the pandemic has exposed issues with how the MLC is written and enforced.

Next year further discussions will be held on amending the MLC. Common areas identified by the speakers where amendments may be necessary included:
• access to vaccination
• travel and crew change
• repatriation of remains
• access to medical care
• unfair treatment

Criminalisation was also repeatedly mentioned in light of cases such as the Ever Given and Wakashio. While the MLC requires an inquiry into any major incident, it currently does not stipulate that the seafarers must be treated fairly.

Guy Platten of the ICS revealed that the organisation intends to put forward amendments that will make the MLC much stronger on two issues: the repatriation of the remains of deceased seafarers, and access to medical treatment.