The Maritime Labor Convention Seeks to Bolster Abandoned Seafarers’ Rights

In April 2014, the Maritime Labor Convention (MLC 2006) committee meets in Geneva, Switzerland, at the headquarters of the International Labor Organization (ILO) to discuss changes to the landmark MLC 2006 code. The goal is to clarify the liability of ship owners with regard to maritime workers’ claims related to maritime injury and death, as well as clarify what constitutes the abandonment of seafarers.

An United Nations Maritime Review about the shipping industry According to the 2013 United Nations Maritime Review, 80 percent of global trade by volume is conducted by sea. Shipping is the backbone of the global economy, yet until 2006, no international convention existed to protect maritime workers against threats like seafarer abandonment.

MLC 2006 features a global standard that defines seafarer abandonment as a ship owner who:

  • fails to cover the costs of repatriating a seafarer
  • leaves the seafarer without any maintenance or support
  • severs all ties with the seafarer, including failure to pay contracted wages for two months

The abandonment can cause maritime workers and their families severe hardship. From 2001 to 2010, ship owners abandoned 136 ships, stranding 1,612 seafarers. At the height of the Great Recession in 2009, ship companies abandoned 57 ships, leaving 647 stranded.
When ship owners walk away from their crews, leaving them stranded in foreign ports with no means of getting home or worse, at sea with dwindling fuel supplies and stocks of food and water, it is not only the maritime workers that suffer, but also the families that these maritime workers support.

Shipping companies facing bankruptcy or the threat of creditors seizing their vessels may simply cut all ties with their vessels, including ending all contact with the crews. They effectively leave these abandoned crews up to their own devices. In some instances a port authority may seize a vessel because the vessel is unseaworthy. If the ship owner refuses to pay for repairs, the crew members find themselves stuck in a foreign port, far from home.

In a paper co-authored by Rear Admiral Charles Michel, former Chief of the US Coast Guard Office of Maritime and International Law, and Lieutenant Amber Ward, Staff Attorney at the Operations Law Group of the US Coast Guard Office of Maritime and International Law, the authors summed up the terrible situation in which an abandoned seafarer finds himself in:
At best, abandoned seafarers are often subject to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, and at worst, they may find themselves in life-threatening conditions with no means of sustenance. […] It should be unacceptable in this modern age that crew members continue to be abandoned in foreign ports without food or water, the financial resources to get home, or their earned wages.”

While, 56 ILO Member States have ratified MLC 2006, covering 80 percent of the world’s shipping and some 1 million seafarers, there are countries that have not yet signed up to MLC 2006, including seafaring nations from Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East. Maritime workers aboard ships sailing under the flags of countries that have not ratified MLC 2006 do not enjoy the same protections as those crews that do.

The International Labor Organization has maintained a database of cases of seafarer abandonment since 2009.  However, the wrangling over what constitutes abandonment means that the database does not record all instances of seafarer abandonment, making it ineffective at identifying and tracking disreputable shipping companies.
This is why the meeting of the MLC committee in April is so important. Its aim is to bolster the rights of abandoned maritime workers by seeking to broaden and clarify the definition of seafarer abandonment. The hope is to finally bring an end to the inhumane practice of seafarer abandonment.


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