The Maritime Labour Convention 2006

The Maritime Labour Convention 2006

A major step forward in maritime law

Reto Dürler
Head, Swiss Maritime Navigation Office


On 23 February 2006, the MLC1 was adopted at the UN Palace in Geneva in the framework of an International Conference of the ILO. Delegates from 106 countries and numerous representatives from the shipowners’ and seafarers’ parties cast their votes. There were 314 votes in favour of the Convention, none against and 2 abstentions. This constituted a huge step forward in the protection of seafarers’ rights on a formal level. The MLC is meant to become the fourth pillar among the most important international maritime conventions such as MARPOL,2 SOLAS3 and STCW,4 all of them important maritime instruments which had been adopted under the auspices of the IMO. The Convention will come into force twelve months after the date on which there have been registered ratifications by at least 30 Members with a total share in the world gross tonnage of ships of 33 per cent. It is estimated that this goal will be reached by 2010.

The MLC covers all seafarers including ship-masters. It also applies to all ships engaged in commercial activities except warships, naval auxiliaries, fishing vessels, dhows and junks. Exclusions must be notified to the ILO after consultation with the social partners. The adoption of the MLC represented a major step forward in the protection of seafarers’ rights on all levels. Although the Convention represents international law, it has a direct impact on the national legislation of each country which ratifies it.

1 Maritime Labour Convention, 2006.

2 International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships, 1973 as amended by the Protocol of 1978 relating to the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships of 2 November 1973.

3 International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea, London, 1 November 1974, as amended.

4 International Convention on Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping for Seafarers, 1978, as amended.

The ILO’s role in maritime labour protection

There is a special peculiarity about ILO: it is the only international organization which is tripartite in the sense that representatives of governments, of employers and of employees take part in the deliberations and negotiations. The governments have two votes and the social partners one vote each when consensus cannot be reached. However, votes are rarely cast as consensus is the best and soundest form to forge an international instrument that is meant to last. In the case of the MLC the vote cast at its adoption had chiefly symbolic character to show the overwhelming consent which is reflected by the result of the vote. It equally adds to the legitimacy of the Convention.

Seafarers have always been of particular concern to ILO. One of its first legal instruments was the National Seamen’s Codes Recommendation which was adopted in 1920, just one year after ILO had been founded. It called for the establishment of an international seafarers’ code which set out the rights and obligations for this sector. In addition there have been as many as 10 special conferences of ILO dedicated to seafarers’ issues and called Maritime Sessions: the first had been held in Genoa in 1920 and the last in Geneva in 2006. In the course of the following years about 68 ILO-Conventions and Recommendations were adopted. Some were ratified by a big number of countries, others by few only. This situation proved to be unsatisfactory. The disparity between the numbers of ratifications of the various legal instruments led to an opaque overview and made implementation complex and difficult.

In the late 1990s of the last century discussions were initiated among representatives of the shipowners and the seafarers about the improvement of labour rights of seafarers. Yet at that time there was neither understanding nor will to compromise. In 2000 the ‘Joint Maritime Commission’ – a consultative body established within ILO – launched a project called the ‘Geneva Accord’ which aimed at collecting all the relevant ILO instruments – conventions and recommendations – and merging them into one single document. This was indeed a very ambitious goal. In 2001 a High Level Tripartite Working Group was created. An important number of meetings, held in different places and of different lengths were necessary to prepare the work for the Diplomatic Conference of 2006. Long negotiations and many ups and downs finally led to the adoption of an instrument which is meant to be a landmark of seafarers’ rights. Indeed some 68 existing ILO Conventions and Recommendations were consolidated and updated. Many of them had been ratified by just a small number of states. With the aim of broad ratification it was often not possible to heighten the standards, yet it was very important not to lower them. The negotiations were slow and often cumbersome. Progress was overshadowed by setbacks. The social partners tried hard to put through their conflicting interests, off and on the government representatives had to act as mediators. Meeting the agreement meant great satisfaction to all the negotiators involved.

The international maritime labour instruments which have been revised and integrated into the new document will be gradually phased out. The ‘old’ conventions will be closed for further ratifications, although countries that had ratified them stay bound by them. This implies that states which ratify the MLC implicitly ‘abandon’ the old ones they had ratified a long time ago. Yet states which do not ratify the new instrument stay bound by those they had ratified previously. This situation may seem complex at first sight, yet it eventually contributes to a high standard of labour protection. It is expected that in the long run, the MLC will supersede all the other existing ILO instruments in the maritime field.

The need for a consolidated maritime labour convention

The new Convention is meant to set out seafarers’ rights to decent conditions of work on a wide range of subjects. It is intended to be globally applicable, easily understandable, readily updatable and uniformly enforced. But why the seafarers’ profession? Seafarers are perhaps the most ‘globalized’ of the world’s workers. Their workplace literally travels around the globe; their employers are often based in other countries than theirs and their ships operate under the labour laws of a variety of different countries. International standards adopted and implemented and enforced by all maritime countries are one of the main means to ensure that there are basic minimum standards for decent work on ships. Let us stress and repeat the three main elements of the Convention: universally acceptable, easily updatable and uniformly enforced.