MLC Week: ‘There’s a growing awareness that seafarers can speak out and claim their rights’

When ITF inspectors first got wind of news that shipowners, maritime unions and the International Labour Organization were planning to re-write and consolidate out-of-date seafarer labour conventions, most of us were skeptical.

The idea that a new and improved Maritime Labour Convention would be any more useful, powerful or popular than all the other earlier, dust-covered attempts was hard to accept. Many of us worried that a broad new international “seafarers bill of rights” would actually pull down higher standards that had been won elsewhere, and that shipowners would use the convention to argue they no longer needed to sign labour contracts with their workers.

In short, as much as we welcomed any kind of new tool in the battle to establish and enforce seafarers’ labour rights, some of us were highly critical of the notion that this paper exercise would make any real difference in the lives of these workers — or advance the interests of the ITF’s Flag of Convenience campaign in any real way.

The convention was completed and adopted two years ago, and some of that skepticism remains. That was apparent throughout the specialized training provided to us by the ILO and paid for by the ITF, and it’s still apparent. Two years into the experiment,  if you want to throw a grenade into a room full of otherwise peaceful inspectors, just ask whether they think the MLC is a good thing. A fight will undoubtedly break out between those skeptics and the inspectors and affiliates who think the convention is a good thing, that some progress has been made, and that as enforcement begins, some of the reviews just might turn out to be positive.

Today, in Part Three of our week-long look at the MLC, we speak with the ITF’s Katie Higgenbottom, one of the people who took part in the negotiations that led to adoption of  the convention. We asked Katie about how successful the rollout period has been from her perspective , and what work remains to be done. Our thanks to Katie for her time and  her straightforward answers.

ITF in Canada: ITF London has been tracking implementation of the MLC. What do that stats on infractions look like?

 Katie: I’d like to say that there’s a measurable improvement in conditions for seafarers since the MLC came into force, but that’s not the case, at least not yet. Looking at the statistics of ITF inspectors reports, the same old problems recur –non-payment of wages, breaches of employment agreements and substandard conditions on board. Panama, by far the biggest flag state and the second to ratify the MLC, has the largest number of problems. This would suggest that they still haven’t got enough resources in place to deal with the number of vessels they have to look after. The main change is that they now reply to us saying the matter has been referred to their MLC department … although we have once managed to shame them into paying for the repatriation of crew abandoned in Rotterdam. That would have never happened pre-MLC.

 ITF in Canada: Tell us about the ITF inspectors’ experience as the MLC kicked into force around the world. Challenges? Successes?

Katie: The positive story is that there’s usually much more cooperation between ITF inspectors and agencies tasked with the enforcement of the convention – both port state control and flag state representatives. At all levels where people in authority are competent and well supported, they tend to be cooperative and able to act in a humane way. Problems arise where the people lack confidence and a proper structure; then they fall back on rules and hierarchies that are less constructive. ITF inspectors are recognised as the experts when it comes to wages and agreements and in most cases, the mutual benefits of working together are recognised. I think there’s also a growing awareness amongst seafarers that they can speak out and claim their rights under the convention. It gives them, and ITF inspectors representing them, an internationally recognised legal basis for demanding decent conditions. On the less good side, there are still plenty of countries that have yet to ratify the convention and a number that have ratified, but that don’t have the capacity to properly implement the requirements. There are still plenty of shipowners out there operating opportunistically with a hand-to-mouth approach to the finances; as soon as someone in the chain delays a payment, the whole operation falls apart and there’s no safety net for the crew. The MLC is supposed to put these operations out of business, but it needs a consistently diligent approach to enforcement to work as it should.

 ITF in Canada: Are there any misconceptions of interpretation of the convention?

Katie: Certain shipowners like to say that there’s no need for an ITF agreement on board ships if they’re MLC-certified. This is a kind of wilful misunderstanding of the purpose of the MLC as opposed to a collective bargaining agreement. It’s typical of bosses who want to patronise their workers by saying you don’t need to be organised because we’re good employers. The ones that say this never are. It also shows a fundamental misunderstanding of the basis of the MLC — which comes from the International Labour Organisation, where governments, employers and workers (in this case seafarers) all have a voice. The convention is a compromise agreed between the three groups to safeguard the basic rights of seafarers, but in a way that’s flexible enough for widespread ratification and that prevents unfair competition between shipowners. The ones that want to eliminate the ITF from the picture are the ones that see an opportunity to undercut their business rivals.

ITF in Canada: We know that the convention is amendable. Can you tell us about future amendment packages?

Katie: Amendments expanding the convention’s coverage on financial security in the case of abandonment and claims for death and long-term disability were agreed in June 2014 and are expected to come into force in early 2017. These are a really big step forward. Flag states will have to have a system in place, either insurance or some sort of fund, that’s directly accessible to seafarers if they’re abandoned by a shipowner or company. If they’re not repatriated, if the ship’s not being provisioned or if the owner has severed ties and not paid wages for two months, the insurance will kick in. It will cover costs of repatriation, essential needs such as food, water, and fuel and up to four months of outstanding wages. It should make it much harder for rogue companies to walk away from their responsibilities and will force flag states to be more vigilant about who they accept on their registers. The new measures regarding shipowner liability in the treatment of contractual claims aim to eliminate pressure put on seafarers to accept less than their due. They should alleviate hardship by requiring interim payments where a process of assessment is necessary. As with the abandonment requirements, seafarers (or their families) will be able make direct claims and ships will have to make all the contact details readily available on board.

ITF in Canada: How does it feel to watch the application of the convention develop?

Katie: It’s fascinating to see how a bureaucratic process arguing over little words (like ‘and’ versus ‘or’) in a fancy meeting room in Geneva plays out in practice. At the beginning, there was a sense of shared values. The challenge is to pass that on to everyone involved in the industry and make sure the idealism doesn’t get diluted, or misinterpreted by lawyers. The key is for seafarers themselves to become expert in their own entitlements and claim them.

Katie Higginbottom is Project & Campaigns Leader in the  ITF’s Maritime Operations department. She participated in the negotiations that resulted in the adoption of the MLC in 2006 and was responsible for the MLC training of the ITF inspectorate in conjunction with the ILO’s training centre in Turin.

Tomorrow: Crew in peril when shipowners abandon all responsibiity

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