New measures to prevent seafarers becoming legally adrift

As of March 2014 there were 159 abandoned merchant ships around the world, according to International Labour Organization (ILO) figures. Some of these cases have remained unresolved since 2006.

The consequence of such abandonment is that many seafarers aboard these ships are working without receiving their wages, often for months, and without adequate food and water, medical attention or means to return to their place of origin.

Working far from home, seafarers are vulnerable to being abandoned in foreign ports when the shipowners fail to meet their obligations.

During the first meeting of the Special Tripartite Committee (established in accordance with the ILO Maritime Labour Convention), held from 7 to11 April in Geneva, more than 300 representatives of leading sea-faring nations, shipowners and seafarers examined this fundamental issue for the men and women workers of the shipping industry, who “play a central role in keeping the real economy going, with some 90% of world trade carried on ships”, said ILO Director-General Guy Ryder.

At the same time, given that seafarers are exposed to difficult working conditions and particular occupational hazards, the Committee examined a second measure: the provision of a financial guarantee to ensure the payment of compensation in case of death or disability as a result of occupational accident, illness or professional risk.

It is the first time in maritime history that both problems for seafarers have been dealt with by a binding international legal instrument.

Although these measures have been developed over years by a Joint Working Group established by the ILO and the International Maritime Organization, it wasn’t until the Convention entered into force that the conditions were right to finally move forward these two key proposals, presented jointly by international representatives of shipowners and seafarers.

This advance is due to the innovative character of the Convention, the content of which allows for the possibility of being updated easily in order to meet the changing needs of seafarers and the maritime transport sector.

The unanimously adopted amendments will strengthen the Convention, and will be presented in May to the International Labour Conference in May for their approval.

Under the new provisions, ships will be required to carry certificates or other documents that establish the existence of financial security to protect seafarers working on board. Failure to meet this requirement may mean that a ship can be detained in port.

The measures therefore guarantee that seafarers are not abandoned and furthermore clearly make flag-states responsible for ensuring that adequate financial security exists to cover the cost of abandonment and indemnity claims.

As the ILO says, by adopting these amendments, shipowners and governments are supporting provisions aimed at “ensuring a level-playing field for quality shipping around the world.”