Foreign Policy Blogs

At Sea for the Holidays

At Sea for the Holidays

Source: Peter Kaminsky,

During the annual shopping rush of the winter holiday season it is easy to neglect to think and ask where the majority of the conveniences we are afforded in shops and online come from and how it all gets here. Our cars, computers and electronic gadgets, clothing, toys, much of our specialty foods, and so much more amounting to 90 percent of international goods arrive via transoceanic container ships.

Seafaring men and women from across the world are responsible for our daily comforts and connecting and globalizing the world we live in. Life as we know it would not exist without their efforts. Typically, seafaring contracts average between 6 and 9 months at a time at sea and seafarers sacrifice time with their families to accommodate our wants and needs especially during the holidays. Unlike any other type of labor, seafarers work and live at sea for long periods of time away from home, they usually sail into the ports of multiple countries during a single voyage and, hence, have special needs when it comes to rights and the protection of those rights at sea, in foreign ports, and even at home. Seafarers are often and easily taken advantage of onboard ships and denied basic protections that we take for granted like shore leave and repatriation.

This summer, on August 20, 2012 the Maritime Labour Convention, 2006 (MLC, 2006) finally received its thirtieth ratification occupying well over the required 33 percent of the world gross tonnage of ships. The MLC, 2006 currently enjoys 32 ratifications representing 59.85 percent of the world gross tonnage of ships. The Convention will come into force exactly 12 months dated from this milestone occasion, August 20, 2013. The MLC, 2006 is a rights-based approach to decent working conditions created by joint efforts of the International Labour Organization (ILO) and the International Maritime Organization (IMO) intended to achieve work place safety and international cohesion by setting minimum international labor and social standards for seafarers. The Convention also fills a significant gap in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, 1982 (UNCLOS) especially when considering that the high seas were not contemplated as a place for labor and human rights in spite of the obvious implications of ship commerce.

So far, human and social rights for seafarers as well as vessel surveying for seaworthiness and habitability have been left in the hands of flag states and the effects of their domestic laws relating to the inspection and certification of working conditions onboard ships with voluntary inspection by port states. The MLC, 2006 sets obligations on flag states, port states, and labor supply states enhancing enforcement and compliance mechanisms for ensuring the protection of seafarers’ rights. These means are intended to harmonize the implementation of the Convention while allowing flexibility through substantially equivalent measures.

The ILO, since its earliest sessions, has concerned itself with connecting the conditions of the work environment, human rights, social justice, and peace internationally. Seafarers’ rights have always been on the agenda as they are part and parcel of the foundations of international commerce and trade and are responsible for the beginning of globalized industries. The nature of the international shipping industry, which involves numerous states and nationalities of peoples simultaneously, requires that universal standards of labor be applied without discrimination regardless of where the seafarers and ship owners are from or where the ship is located and registered. Since its formation, the ILO has adopted 41 maritime labor conventions and recommendations, the majority of which (37 conventions covering a wide range of maritime socioeconomic issues including and not limited to social security, health, and repatriation) have been subsumed by the MLC, 2006.

The MLC, 2006 was adopted at the 94th Session of the International Labour Conference by a historic record setting affirmation of 314 votes for and zero against. When taking into account that the ILO operates on a tripartite basis, where governments, employers, and workers all have a seat at the table in the negotiation and voting processes it is quite remarkable to comprehend that all involved understood and agreed that the MLC, 2006 was warranted and necessary to protect seafarers living and working conditions universally, as well as promoting fair competition and preventing a race to the bottom by disallowing worker exploitation from becoming a competitive edge. To ensure similar treatment of all ships, the MLC, 2006 contains a “no more favorable treatment” clause so that all ships whether their flag state has ratified the Convention or not will be held to international standards by state parties, hence, incentivizing state and private industry actors to conform and respect seafarers’ rights.

The MLC, 2006 is the beginning of realizing the ILO’s early goal of establishing an international code for seafarers and was designed to operate as the IMO’s fourth pillar of international maritime regulation along side the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL), the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS), and the International Convention on Standards of Training, Certification, and Watchkeeping (STCW). Combined, these four conventions cover the scope of ship-source marine pollution and environmental protection at sea, ship safety and security, the competency of workers, and seafarers’ rights.

There is much to look forward to in the coming months and seafarers have a huge hand in facilitating our enjoyments. Fortunately and to much excitement, the methods, implementation, and agreement procedures employed in the drafting of the MLC, 2006 has great implications and we are witnessing the beginning of the future of international law making, regulation, and enforcement in the international labor market.




Marc Gorrie

Marc C. Gorrie holds a BA from Sarah Lawrence College, a JD from Indiana University Maurer School of Law – Bloomington, and an LLM in international human rights law with a specialization in international labor rights law from Lund University (Sweden). He is a port welfare worker and ship visitor for the Seamen's Church Institute in Ports Newark and Elizabeth, NJ, where he also collaborates on an educational program on the Maritime Labour Convention directed at port chaplains and welfare workers. He recently contributed to an EU project on legal education and law school curricula in the Gambia, and has held a research fellowship in legal ethics, lectured on federal Indian law and American legal ethics, and worked as a disability advocate.