Hundred percent compliance must be MLC aim, By Steve Cotton, ITF (International Transport Workers’ Federation) acting general secretary
This is the year the ILO’s Maritime Labour Convention 2006 (MLC) finally comes into force. It has taken over a decade to reach this point, but this is no time to relax. The MLC must be supported, successfully implemented, further ratified – and it must be applied without fear or favour, to all vessels, regardless of whether their flag state has ratified or not.
The MLC has been described as the fourth pillar of shipping regulation, alongside Solas, Marpol and the STCW, and is intended to be strictly enforced by flag states and port state control. It should provide a ‘one stop shop’ for labour standards. This will mean that all seafarers should be able to enjoy comprehensive protection of their fundamental rights, and ensure good employment practice across the industry – thereby creating a level playing field in which the good ship operators are not put at an economic disadvantage by the bad ones.
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, existing ILO maritime standards and accepted good employment practice. Under it, every ship over 500 gross tonnage operating in international waters or between ports of different countries will have to have a maritime labour certificate issued by its flag administration following an inspection. There will also a requirement for ships to complete and maintain on board a declaration of maritime labour compliance.
For seafarers the convention sets out the minimum rights that they should expect (although many states that ratify it may have higher standards), and incorporates and builds on 68 existing maritime labour conventions and recommendations, as well as other fundamental principles, to ensure decent working and living conditions.
The proof of whether all this is achieved will not come until the MLC has been in operation for at least some time. Monitoring will be needed to verify implementation and raise awareness of the MLC within the seafaring community. There will also be a form of second stage; in the negotiations over the MLC it was recognised that it was crucial to get the convention into force, and as part of that a staged approach on the issue of abandonment was included. First comes the MLC itself, followed by the expected addition of an amendment on this topic being led by the IMO-ILO working group on abandonment and crew claims, due next year.
One area that has attracted some doubt is whether there will be a disparity between the standards applied to vessels from flag states that have or have not ratified. At ports where the MLC is being fully complied with and the highest standards maintained, irrespective of whether the country has ratified, every ship calling will be visited by port state control (PSC). For ships whose flag state has ratified the convention the visit will vary from simply checking MLC documentation to full inspection. Non-MLC flag state ships will have to be inspected to guarantee they do not enjoy more favourable treatment.
For example, we have been asked whether, given the UK’s disappointing failure to ratify, UK-flagged ships calling in Norway will have to be in compliance, while a Chinese-flagged ship calling in the UK will not. The answer is that Norwegian PSC will treat a UK flag vessel as non-MLC certified and therefore the inspection carried out is likely to be more thorough than for an MLC-certified one. The Chinese vessel visiting the UK though will still be subject to a PSC visit (PSC in the UK has already incorporated provisions to check issues which are in the convention). However the ship will not have the MLC maritime labour compliance and declaration of maritime labour compliance documents, so the visit will not be made solely in order to verify those. The guidelines for PSC for ships that are not certified oblige ratified states ( Norway in this case) to ensure that ships of non-ratified states do not get away with receiving more favourable treatment.
We believe that the industry should not accept flag states which have not ratified effectively circumventing the convention by issuing compliance certificates to vessels under its flag. Our concern is that if, say, the USA is going to issue certificates to American-flagged vessels, where is the urgency for it to ratify? The more states that ratify the finer and more successful a piece of legislation the MLC will be.
There is a groundswell of opinion, of which the ITF is part, that common interpretation of the MLC is necessary – irrespective of the ratification status of the flag state and port nation. The aim of all of us should be to get the MLC working as smoothly and effectively as possible, the minute it comes into force, and then to build on its undoubted advances and advantages. And to that must be added another and highly important objective: to get every flag state to ratify, until one hundred percent of the world fleet is covered.