Why SADC should ratify Maritime Labour Convention


Dr Moses Amweelo

The  Maritime Labour Convention (MLC) is an International Labour Organisation convention (number 186), established in 2006 as the fourth pillar of international maritime law.

The 2006 agreement embodies all up-to-date standards of existing international maritime labour conventions and recommendations.

In the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC), we experienced that labour issues concerning ships’ crews and related employees’ concerns occupy a large proportion of the modern master’s time and require him to be a mixture of psychologist, union negotiator and welfare officer.

And all this is expected of the master despite the absence of adequate training in any of these areas.

However, the erosion of the shipping job market in the traditional maritime SADC member states, fears of further automation, as well as flag of registry, will ensure that extensive knowledge of the maritime labour scene be a requirement for command in the years to come.

This knowledge will have to be based on an understanding of legal/regulatory, political, social and cultural aspects of maritime labour.

In the end, the actual regulation will come from the flag state, but the impetus will come from three areas, ie two United Nations specialised agencies and the private/industrial sector.

The UN’s International Maritime Organisation will only concern itself with maritime labour from the safety point of view.

It will attempt to oversee the qualifications, standards of training and manning scales for ships. 

The International Maritime Organisation’s STCW Convention will form the basis for minimum standards of professional manning at sea.

This is an area where input from the profession is badly needed as it has simple been left for governments to state what their particular manning standards ought to be.

Considering that over 90 percent of all maritime accidents in SADC countries are caused by human error, much work needs still to be done in this area.

Of course, basic safety requirements are today often mixed with trade union desires which results in the manning of similar vessels with 25 persons under one state’s regulations and double that amount in another.

It has to be realised that the internationalisation of shipping today allows owners to move vessels from a ‘’non-commercial’’ registry very quickly. Thus, safety and job security can only exist together if realistic practicalities prevail.

The 2006 Maritime Labour Convention 2006 sets out seafarers’ rights to decent conditions of work. It is sometimes called the Seafarers’ Bill of Rights.

The convention came into force on August 20, 2013 effectively becoming binding in international law and established minimum working and living standards for all seafarers on those ships.

As of June 2020, the treaty has been ratified by 97 countries, many of which are large flag states in terms of the tonnage they transport.

Currently only three SADC member states have ratified MLC 2006. These are Mauritius, South Africa and the United Republic of Tanzania.

The most significant impact on the maritime labour scene will continue to come from within the shipping industry itself.

More particularly, this should come from a commercially astute, cost-conscious ship owning community on one side, and the labour unions on the other.

Therefore, it is important for all SADC members - especially maritime states - to ratify MLC 2006 because it brings together, in one place, international minimum standards that ensure decent work for seafarers.

The region should always bear in mind that the work of seafarers is essential to international trade as well as to an increasingly important form of tourism and recreational activity.

Under MLC 2006, every seafarer has the right to: a safe and secure workplace that complies with safety standards, fair terms of employment, decent working and living conditions onboard ship, health protection, medical care, welfare measures and other forms of social protection of seafarers during the COVID-19 pandemic in SADC member states.

Labour organisations such as the International Transport Federation (ITF) will attempt to ensure that seafarers receive remuneration which allows the maintenance of basic living standards.

But even these attempts are already viewed with suspicion by Third World seafarers who see the ITF as a traditional maritime state-dominated group aiming to protect the interests of “Northern” seafarers.

There is no question that there will be a continuous, large influx of “Southern” seafarers in the maritime labour market.

It may even be possible that this market will be dominated by these “newcomers” before too long.

It has to be borne in mind that many of the more advanced developing states, have very considerable maritime interests, are actively engaged, invariably with IMO help to train large numbers of officers and seamen, and already have the capacity in manpower, as well as capital, to enter maritime transport on a large scale.

As a result, in the maritime labour field, very considerable infrastructural and, inevitably, legal changes will affect mariners both directly and indirectly.

It is for these reasons that SADC member states should endorse MLCb2006 as it is unique in that it aims both to achieve decent work for seafarers and secure economic interests through fair competition for quality ship owners.


Dr Moses Amweelo is an expert in maritime safety. He has served as Minister of Works, Transport and Communication in the Republic of Namibia





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