MLC Week: How the world came together for a Seafarers’ Bill of Rights

Substandard shipping – shameless shipowners exploiting workers to make a profit moving goods – has probably existed forever. But why has it been allowed to exist for centuries? Who profits by substandard shipping and who is harmed? And why does the system flourish?

One way to think about the issue is by looking at a new tool forged recently from the conviction that maritime workers have labour rights, that companies ignore them to gain competitive advantage, and that inspection and enforcement of a defined set of acceptable working conditions would go a long way to help seafarers. That tool is formally known as the Maritime Labour Convention 2006 – informally dubbed the MLC, or the Seafarer’s Bill of Rights.

It’s a tough world for workers, and getting tougher by the minute. Tools that protect them, especially those agreed to internationally, matter – both to the maritime world and the greater labour community.

August 20 will mark the second anniversary of the coming into force in 2013 of the Maritime Labour Convention 2006. (The “2006” often confuses people; it’s the year it was adopted by the International Labour Conference of the ILO.) To mark the anniversary, the ITF in Canada blog will focus on the MLC this week. We will look at the convention from a global perspective, but also talk about what has happened in Canada since it came into force. (Spoiler alert: It’s a government story Canadians can actually be proud of!)

Briefly, the convention sets out standards for employment conditions (things like training and the minimum age for work, payment, hours of rest, leave, repatriation and manning) , accommodation, recreation facilities, food, health and medical care — and compliance and enforcement of those standards.

But first, a bit of history to help understand why we have the convention – and a bit on what it’s all about.

The MLC is a convention of the International Labour Organization. It’s the result of many years of negotiation and dialogue between ILO member nations, shipowners organizations (under the umbrella of the International Chamber of Shipping) and seafarers labour organizations (under the umbrella of the ITF).

Decades ago, the ILO determined that seafarers were a unique workforce. Drawn from many differing nations and working aboard vessels of many different flags, working far away from home and facing certain hardship and sometimes unscrupulous treatment at the hands of brutal employers, the ILO determined that seafarers were in need of special protections. Many ILO maritime conventions were drafted, and sometimes adopted by member states. But they remained largely unratified and ignored by members – and so were of no real value for use by maritime governance authorities or even seafarers labour organizations.

That’s a simple but important lesson. The best of intentions by groups like the ILO mean nothing if members don’t ratify the resulting conventions and spend money and political muscle on their enforcement.

Horrible maritime incidents continued.

A quick look at a list of them shows that it was largely flag-of-convenience ships that caught the public’s eye and prompted great condemnation of the shipping industry.

In the UK, people were shocked by the grounding of the Torry Canyon in 1967, when 32 million gallons of crude spewed into the waters off southwest England. In 1993, the tanker Braer, headed from Norway to Canada, grounded off the Shetland Islands, spilling more than 84,000 tonnes of crude into the North Sea. By now the British public had had enough of oily beaches and an inquiry was called, chaired by Lord John Donaldson. His Safer Ships and Cleaner Seas report in 1994 carried 109 recommendations, many pertaining to what would become known as “the human element”.

Just two years earlier, former Australian Transport Minister Peter Morris conducted a similar inquiry, ending with a report called Ships of Shame: Inquiry into Ship Safety. Morris later went on to produce a groundbreaking report called Ships, Slaves and Competition for the International Commission on Shipping.

A year or two later, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development was tasked to do a study on the effects of substandard shipping – and to give particular attention to the competitive advantage shipowners would gain by operating their ships in a substandard fashion. The title of the 1996 study was, indeed, Competitive Advantages Obtained By Shipowners as a Result of Non-observance of Applicable International Rules and Standards.

Seven years later in 2003, Transport Canada filed its own report to the OCED on substandard shipping.

In short, if you poke around the internet for five minutes, you can find more reports on substandard shipping than you could read in a month.

We began by posing a question: Who benefits and who is hurt by this type of shipping?

Clearly, the operators and owners of such ships profit. They can keep their ships working by chartering them at lower rates than owners of higher quality ships and operations – and there’s the rub. The OECD did its report on substandard shipping not at the behest of seafarers labour groups, but at the request of shipowners who were being undercut in the free market. Insurance companies asked the OECD for the report too, because they pay for the calamites caused by slipshod operators.

So equally clearly, when even industry was feeling the pain, something needed to happen. The story of the MLC is not the story of capital doing labour a favour. The industry needed a solution. Badly. Port state control was introduced in the 1980s because flag states were not enforcing standards under their registers
– and this left it to port states (the ports where the flag-of-convenience ships were calling) to police the outlaws of the shipping world.

Port state marine-safety inspectors like those you will find at Transport Canada joined ITF inspectors in hunting down these operators. Port state, as it it is known, did a good job of clearing out some of the worst ships from our ports in Canada, focusing for example on structural issues, ballast tanks, lifeboats and navigation equipment. ITF inspectors dealt with employment and living conditions.

Sounds simple, but it wasn’t. While there were mechanisms to deal with a broken lifeboat davit, a rotten fire hose or fire doors that wouldn’t close, there were no regulations to force shipowners to pay the crew, or to really ensure there was food of adequate quality and quantity on board, or that the crew could avail themselves of proper medical attention in case of illness or accident.

That left ITF inspectors to operate in a gray area, using industrial leverage to ensure the crew needs were met – and sometimes taking a crew on strike to get them paid.

We also spoke long and loud, and wherever we could, about the disreputable practices we were observing, and that the shipping industry as a whole was allowing to continue. Those shipowners who were paying their crew appropriately weren’t happy with the bad publicity spread about the industry – and they were still suffering unfair competition from their shady colleagues.

So finally, the ITF and the International Chamber of Shipping agreed to sit down at the ILO and try to develop and agree on a new convention that would protect seafarers. It worked. For about three years, employer and employee groups and nation states met with the ILO Secretariate, hashed out the issue and finally agreed to the MLC – which fills an entire book.

Canada was very active in the talks. Transport Canada was right at the table. Leading them at the time was a young French-Canadian port state control officer named Donald Roussel, who had recently left fieldwork for a job in Ottawa. In Rimouski, as a marine safety inspector, he has seen firsthand the worst aspects of substandard shipping, abuse and abandonments of seafarers. To Roussel’s credit, he actively sought out the shipping industry and the Canadian ITF Coordinator — and all of us would sit down and hash out what was going on in Geneva. As a group, we eventually brought the convention to Canada and had legislation and regulations amended where necessary to bring Canada into conformity with the convention when it came into force.

When the MLC was adopted, Canada became the tenth country to ratify it. (The convention would need 30 countries with 33% per cent of world tonnage to bring it into force.) While we waited for the convention to come into force, Transport Canada and the ITF Canada agreed to a training program for Transport Canada marine safety inspectors on seafarers’ employment conditions. Our three ITF inspectors – Vince Giannopoulous, Gerard Bradbury and Coordinator Peter Lahay – helped to train these government inspectors in Quebec, the Atlantic Canada and B.C.

Because the ITF Inspectors and Transport Canada had built such a strong foundation of trust over the years that the MLC was being developed and then implemented, Canada has been probably one of the top two or three countries in the world where seafarers’ grievances are fully addressed.

This week, we will tell a few stories and point out the strengths and weaknesses of the convention. It hasn’t changed the world, but it has given some of the world’s most marginalized and isolated workers an occasional chance.

Tomorrow: Tune in for a no-holds-barred look at the abuse of workers on substandard ships in Canadian ports

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