Working for seafarers’ rights

Progress has been made, but there is still more to be done to reach parity on conditions at sea and on shore


In the last two years, seafarers’ rights have been stretched to breaking point beyond the systemic issues that make life at sea far more challenging.

They have been stretched to the point where many are choosing other careers, and shipowners and operators are poten­ tially heading towards a recruitment crisis.

In addition to dealing with the threat of poor labour conditions, the crew change crisis ( triggered by the Covid pandemic) led to hundreds of thou sands of seafarers being stuck at sea, sometimes many months beyond the end of their contracts, with no idea when they might be able to return home.

An equivalent number were una­ble to get to sea to fulfil their contracts and earn a living. Even now, two and a half years after the pandemic first struck, 4.2% (July 2022) of seafarers are on board beyond the expiration of their contracts, with 0.3% on board beyond the 11 month maximum mandated by the Maritime Labour Convention.

The (thin) silver lining of the crew change crisis is that the world has begun to realise the extent to which global trade relies on these seafarers, and to understand that their working conditions and welfare must be protected and respected to ensure a sustainable shipping industry and re­silient supply chain for the delivery of medicines, foods, fuels, raw materials, and goods we all take for granted each and every day.

In October 2021, the Sustainable Shipping Initiative (SSI), the Insti- tute for Human Rights and Business (IHRB), and the Rafto Foundation launched a Code of Conduct for char­terers and a self-assessment question­naire for shipowners, managers, and operators that cover the full spectrum of seafarers’ rights and welfare.

These tools are not intended to be a one-time snapshot or expected to trigger over­ night change, but rather to provide a shared baseline for the industry and for individual companies to under­ stand and take action across the scope of their seafarers’ rights and welfare obligations.

Ultimately, we hope this work will increase accountability and enable demonstrable progress over time with the goal of securing lasting and positive change for seafarers.

The Code of Conduct is voluntary, and the accompanying self-assessment questionnaire for shipowners and operators is, at this stage, just that – a self assessment; one that is not exter­nally verified.

For RightShip, however, which hosts the online Crew Welfare Self-Assessment Tool, it is just the beginning. For example, RightShip has begun carrying out trials where crew welfare is added as part of their on board ship assessment, and they are keen to work with partners to discover the best ways to implement this perma­nently.

Meaningful improvement

As we come up to the first anniversary of the launch of the Code of Conduct, it is time to reflect on its uptake and adoption, to what extent it has delivered on seafarers’ rights, and what more needs to be done.

The Delivering on Seafarers’ Rights initiative – which produced the Code of Conduct – was conceived as a journey, with all stake­ holders playing their part to ensure ef­fective implementation and, ultimately, meaningful improvement in seafarers’ rights.

SSI, IHRB and the Rafto Founda­tion are convening a roundtable in October 2022 in Singapore, hosted by Swire Shipping. It will bring together shipowners and operators, charterers, government, and, most importantly seafarers and their representatives, to discuss the overall performance of the Code of Conduct so far, and the uptake and aggregate data from the Crew Welfare Self-Assessment Tool.

The roundtable will also look at other initiatives and research, and will focus on three specific issues that impact seafarers: recruitment fees, abandon­ment and security on board ships. In late October we will publish a progress report, which will chart progress thus far and the next steps for meaningful work to continue.

In the meantime, it is reassuring to note that the latest agreed updates to the ILO Maritime Labour Convention (MLC) will include elements already covered by the Code of Conduct.

The MLC is an international treaty to pro­tect the seafarers’ rights that came into force in 2006. It has now been ratified by more than 100 countries, represent­ing over 90% of the world’s fleet. One of its provisions is a Special Tripartite Committee (STC) comprising gov­ernment, shipowners, and seafarers’ representatives (Seafarers’ Group), which meets periodically to keep the convention constantly reviewed and updated.

The latest meeting of the STC was held in Geneva in May 2022, with agreement on a number of changes including (among others):

  • The right to mandatory social connectivity for crews – including internet
  • Improved access to free drinking water, quality provisions, and balanced diets.
  • Clarification on responsibilities for governments to provide information to seafarers on mandatory systems of protection that must be put in place by recruitment and placement agencies.
  • Appropriately-sized personal protective equipment, in particular to suit the increasing number of women seafarers.
  • Further State facilitation of the prompt repatriation of abandoned seafarers.

More to be done

The STC also adopted several resolu­tions that will guide the future work of the committee, including further work on the eradication of sexual harass­ment at sea, the sustainability of the financial security provisions provided by P&I Clubs and insurers, and the ability of seafarers to enforce seafar­ers’ employment agreements against shipowners.

However, there were improvements proposed by the Seafarers’ Group that were not agreed upon – including proposed changes to the MLC’s terms on repatriation.

The Seafarers’ Group demanded that shipowners’ responsi­bility to repatriate seafarers at the end of their contracts be extended to the point at which seafarers land at their home location but this was rejected by shipowners.

Beyond being ethically the right thing to do, wellbeing on board a ship is critical to ensuring a safe work and living environment for seafarers.

Many issues need to be addressed and it’s difficult to prioritise. For many of us, staying connected to loved ones and having access to nutritious and varied food that meets our dietary needs and preferences are things which contribute to our overall wellbeing and that we take for granted – yet these are not always available to seafarers.

Working at sea should not require a seafarer to compromise on their labour and human rights. The industry needs to be more diligent about improving the way seafarers are respected and treated if it hopes to be an attractive career choice now and in the future.

For an industry like shipping that deals with so many complexities around jurisdiction and regulatory en­forcement, some basic entitlements still need to be met.

Better enforcement of human and labour rights regulations, such as the MLC, is needed. At the same time, transparency and commu­nication around these rights can be a powerful tool to increase enforcement and wellbeing.

Ensuring seafarers know their rights and, just as impor­tantly, know where to go if things go wrong can go a long way to improving wellbeing of those working at sea – a seafarer’s workplace and home.

Both SSI and IHRB look forward to continuing ongoing constructive engagement with all actors committed to strengthening the protection of, and respect for, human rights in the maritime industry, and will continue efforts to ensure that seafarers’ rights are protected and respected.

This article is shared by courtesy of The Mission To Seafarers – Written by Francesca Fairbairn and Andrew Stephens.

For more articles about seafarers, click here.

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