When economic interests impair maritime safety

Maritime Articles

Aging boats and low staffing levels are two factors with a high degree of responsibility in many maritime accidents, and examples of this are the accidents suffered by petroleum tankers such as the Aegean Sea and the Braer.

In the early hours of the 3rd of December in 1992 the Greek petroleum tanker Aegean Sea entered in the port of La Coruña (in Galicia, Northwest Spain) with adverse weather conditions, winds of over 100 km/h and visibility of under 100m. Because of a swelling of the sea – according to the ships’s captain – or due to an incorrect maneuver – according to the Marine Merchant General Directorate -the vessel deviated from the planned course and ended up grounded against the rocks 100 meters from the coast and close to the entrance to the port. This accident caused significant ecological damage. The 80,000-tons spillage of petroleum affected 300km of coastline and killed around 26,000 animals.  

In January of 1993 in Great Britain the British petroleum tanker Braer, which was registered in Liberia, crashed against the rocks of the coast of the Shetland Islands in Scotland. The vessel was a single hulled tanker of 89,730 tons which belonged to the North American company Braer Corp flying the flag of Liberia for convenience. In the morning of the 4th of January, with a storm force of 10 to 11 and with waves of more than 10 meters, the ventilation of the diesel tanks of the machine room broke. Seawater began to enter and contaminated the vessel’s diesel. At 4.40 am the main motor went out, leaving the Braer without propulsion and in darkness.   

These two regrettable maritime accidents were caused to a large degree by the interests of some ship owners who, in order to obtain a bigger economic profit, cut back on safety. The staffing of the two petroleum tankers previously mentioned were similar; a Greek command and a mainly Philippine crew. 

The diversity these petroleum tankers’ crew continues to be a recurring characteristic with current mariners, given that between the European sailors and those from the Philippines and other Third World countries there is no much difference to ship owners. This is largely determined by the companies, which in the search for higher profit, contract the cheapest workforce available, frequently reducing crew size – although there are minimum levels which can’t be ignored – limiting with these constant staff changes the opportunities for the crew members to get to know the vessel well.    

In many cases the crew is made up of people from different countries and the marines can’t understand each other or, worse still, their English is so poor that they aren’t capable of understanding the captain’s orders when they are slightly complex.

This problem is so serious that the German government proposed – within a range of measures put before the European Community – the introduction of a work language exclusively for boats and the communications between crews and the maritime authorities. They also proposed the need for more rigorous controls when petroleum tankers dock in community ports. Currently, with the Montreal Protocol, the port authorities are authorized to review 25% of the vessels which dock. However, this control is regrettably limited to a check of the vessel’s documentation.

It was further proposed that petroleum tankers should be obliged to sail further away from the coast. In the case of the Braer, it is believed that if they had chosen to go around the north of the islands instead of choosing the southern channel the ecological disaster would have been avoided. 

Economic Reasons Influence the Vessels’ flags

Profit is also the determining factor in the adoption of flags of convenience; the Braer was sailing under a Liberian flag. The Aegean Sea was almost 20 years old when she sunk and the petroleum tanker that crashed in the Shetland Islands had already been around for more than 17 years. They formed part of a wide group of petroleum tankers that were built during the 1970s and as such didn’t include the security specifications which were later implemented by the International Maritime Organization for newly built petroleum tankers. These older vessels lack a double hull and still have 10 years in front of them without the need to modernize, factors which have led to them being categorized as “almost pirate”.

This is a truly alarming situation when you take into account the fact that there is approximately 1,500 million tons of petroleum transported around the seas of the world every year.

Maritime Labour Convention (MLC) Becomes Effective in August 2013

Maritime Articles

The Maritime Labour Convention (MLC) of 2006 starts enforcement in August, 2013, affecting the working conditions of more than 1.2 million mariners. Now that the MLC is coming into effect, sailors, ship owners, and nation states can expect international consistency in maritime laws and regulations regarding work environment, employment conditions, as well as health and medical issues.

Working and living conditions -both on board and on shore- have been standardized internationally to prevent the problems of conflicting jurisdiction and regional maritime law. Under the convention, all ships weighting 500 tons or more must comply with all minimum requirements specified under the Maritime Labour Convention (MLC).

The International Labour Organization (ILO) needed a minimum of 30 countries to ratify the Maritime Labour Convention. As of August 2012, the Maritime Labour Convention has been ratified by 35 countries, representing 67% of the world’s shipping.

The convention is organized into 5 main Titles:

1. Minimum Requirements for seafarers to work on ships

  • Minimum age: must be 16 year old, or 18 for night work or for hazardous areas
  • Medical certificate that assures fitness to work
  • Training for work duties and personal safety
  • Proper recruitment and placement, as well as proper registration, complaint procedures, and compensation if recruitment is unsuccessful

2. Conditions of Employment 

  • Clear, legally enforceable maritime work contracts that include standards set forth by existing collective bargaining agreements
  • Mariner wages that are paid every month, and can be transferred to family upon request
  • Standardized hours of rest and hours of work for all marine workers
  • Official right to annual leave and shore leave
  • Seafarers do not have to pay for repatriation
  • Seafarer unemployment benefits for ship’s loss or foundering
  • Manning levels should always be sufficient on all ships

3.  Accommodation, Recreation, Food and Catering

  • Ship accommodations and facilities should promote seafarer’s health and well being
  • Food quality, quantity, and water must be regulated by the ship’s flag state. The ship’s cooks and all other food preparers should be properly trained.

4. Health Protection, Medical Care, Welfare and Social Security Protection

  • Medical care provided on board and ashore
  • Ship owner’s liability—form of worker’s compensation for seafarers, which includes at least 16 weeks of wages after the start of illness or injury
  • Standard health and safety protection and marine worker accident prevention
  • Access to shore based welfare facilities, which should be accessible to all seamen regardless of race, sex, religion, or political affiliation
  • Social Security coverage for all mariners.

5. Compliance and Enforcement

  • Flag states are responsible for enforcement
  • MLC applies to ships of non-member countries if they plan to call to ports of member states
  • Labor agencies are to be inspected, to ensure that they are in compliance with the MLC

The purpose of the Maritime Labour Convention (MLC) is to ensure basic universal rights for seafarers around the world, in terms of reasonable working conditions, medical and health protection, accommodations, and social security benefits. The difficult part comes with the consistent implementation of the convention throughout the world. Certification and inspection will require a lot of time, effort, and resources, so ratifying governments and the maritime industry must work together to achieve compliance.

Ships that choose to remain uncertified or sail under the jurisdiction of non-ratifying states may have to endure more red tape and delays when entering the ports of ratifying states. Hopefully, the hassle and cost that comes with being uncertified will encourage all ships to become certified, or for more countries to ratify the MLC.

Overall, the convention is supported by many of the world’s seafarers, ship owners, and nation states. Hopefully, the Maritime Labour Convention will be properly enforced by all ratifying countries, which should improve the working and living conditions of mariners from all corners of the globe.