Seafaring is a unique profession. An argument could be made regarding similarities to aircrew, but the longest flight is less than a day, usually in a straight line with one stop, whereas a seagoing vessel can have crew on board for weeks or even months at a time, so it doesn’t really compare.
There are huge variations in the range of at-sea environments; from yachts (small and large), fishing boats and cruise liners to container ships. No matter how big the vessel though, there is a limit of space and distance between each crewmember and officers. There is no easy escape, meaning that following protocols and standards is essential to foster a harmonious atmosphere in which to work and live.
Those who are employed at sea know they’re entering a situation where they will live and work in a confined environment. They’ll be part of a crew that can be large or relatively small, often from many different backgrounds and nationalities, for a lengthy period of time. The risk from Mother Nature herself is enough, without the historic problems of having to contend with exploitation, low pay and significantly high levels of mental illness. It’s not an easy way of life, it has even been compared to prison in many cases and for some, it can be hell at sea.
The Maritime Labour Convention sought to change that and bring in safeguards to protect workers on commercial seagoing vessels, (except for fishing boats, which are excluded). It was drafted by the International Labour Organisation (ILO), a body founded as part of the Treaty of Versailles at the end of the First World War. The ILO is an agency of the United Nations and works to bring workers, employers and governments together across industries, to ensure decent standards are upheld.
Global acceptance among most of the major shipping nations has seen 80 countries ratify the MLC 2006, with Albania being the latest to do so. Several, including Portugal, Thailand, New Zealand and Honduras will also have it come into force this year, (the UK ratified in 2013). Given that many of the rules were already in place, under other ILO conventions though, what difference has it made, and to whom?
It’s important to remember that the MLC is only intended for workers at sea, (it does not apply to vessels operating in inland waters) to ensure they have the same protections as workers ashore. Operators were to provide safe working environment and systems, adequate training, professional standards and proper care for the welfare of their crews.
Under the Convention, owners retain responsibility for crewmembers when they are unable to work, due to foundering, personal injury or sickness whilst on board. In the event of the vessel being lost, or unable to continue its voyage, there is also a requirement for compensation. In addition, in any circumstance where a crewmember is unable to continue their duties, whether through injury or sickness, their costs must be covered until they are recovered or declared permanently unfit. Importantly, ship owners must ensure crewmembers are repatriated as necessary, in any of the above circumstances.
Before the MLC, such situations were a hazard of the job, especially in parts of the world where labour is cheap and jobs on board ships are in high demand. Seafarer welfare, rightly, applies across the industry, irrespective of the size or type of vessel. There were complaints however, that the MLC was very much directed towards improving standards and protecting crewmembers on cargo and large commercial ships. The working environments of seafarers who work on these vessels are very different to the conditions encountered on large yachts or private charters involved in the leisure and tourism industry.
It’s fair to say that when the MLC was introduced, there were some concerns within the yacht industry; not least for yacht-builders who were concerned about the effect of increased requirements for crew accommodation and the impact this would have on design and cost. There were also considerations of the effect that regulations concerning crew accommodation could have on the viability of chartering for some yachts.
Whilst there may be a valid question in relation to why the yacht industry was not consulted before the MLC was drafted, what is not up for debate is the requirement for those employed at sea to have the same protections as those who work ashore. Employment legislation is in place to protect workers and that should not end once the marina has been left behind.
Clearly, crewing a yacht takes significant technical and transferable skill. With often, limited space available, a flexible and multi-skilled crew is essential, but this can create more pressure and increase the potential for a negative impact on health and wellbeing. Ensuring the on-going welfare of crewmembers is one key area where the MLC has undoubtedly had a positive effect.
Whilst the legislation is complex and some exceptions apply for certain regulations, there are key standards that have been put into to place. The Large Yacht Code was updated when the MLC came into force, to ensure equivalence for those who operate these vessels and to provide greater clarity, but the vast array of regulations seem to change almost as frequently as the tide and it can be difficult for owners and operators to keep up.
There are a huge number of conventions, codes and regulations that apply to seagoing vessels, in a regulatory framework that appears much more complex than the legislation that shore-based employers must comply with.
The MLC should have made it simpler for owners and operators to fulfil their responsibilities, but with even more regulations and updates to the LYC3, the PYC and the forthcoming Red Ensign Group Code 2017, along with international codes and decrees being brought into force, a lack of awareness could actually be the biggest problem for owners/operators and their employees.