Foreign Policy Blogs

Considering Seafarers’ Right to Communicate

Image: NOAA

Image: NOAA

For much of the world’s employed, maintaining communication with those closest to them while completing their employment requirements is not a contemplated issue. Many workers can use their own personal or workplace phones, computers, and other devices to contact their friends and family if need be. Outside the workplace, most working people return home to be with their loved ones or are able to contact them with relative ease and at a reasonable cost. Modern social media also allows people to keep informed of the major events and day-to-day lives of their contacts.

For the world’s seafarers, the ability to communicate with their home from their sea-going living and workplace is not the norm, but is gaining more significant attention.

When the world’s fleet is away from port, communication capabilities rely on satellites. Modern international seafaring vessels are equipped with such devices – indeed, international and national maritime laws require the observance of rather detailed technical specifications for ships’ communication and radio systems. These systems are in place more for the ship than its crew, and aim to facilitate its operation and to prevent injury to its crew, the environment or people. Personal communication is possible through such systems, but is often cost or time prohibitive.

The duration of a seafarer’s voyage depends largely on two factors: where seafarers are from and their vessel’s route. European seafarers can only be hired through contracts that are considered relatively short, approximately four or five months. Seafarers hailing from elsewhere in the world may be engaged for longer voyages. For example, the Philippines is home to most of the world’s seafarers and their contracts can be twice as long as their European counterparts. Despite advances in the maritime technologies, voyages can be extremely long. It can take 30 days to travel to Singapore from Port Newark around the Cape of Good Hope and a seafarer may be unable to use their ship’s satellite technology for personal communication for reasons varying from spotty signals to a ship’s policy.

According to Seafarers’ Rights International (SRI), 80 percent of all seafarers, but 97 percent of ratings, have no access to the internet while at sea.  68 percent of ratings have limited onboard access to email in port, while 52 percent of all seafarers actually have such access. What this demonstrates is an ability of ships’ officers and engineers being able to utilize the ship’s communications systems for personal reasons where lower-ranking seafarers do not.

Such occurrences are not infrequent due to the similar configuration of most ships’ communications systems. There may be more than one phone on board the ship, but typically only one voice call can be made at a time. Many ships do not have computers in crew or officer’s mess or recreation areas. The only computers available for common usage are perhaps several in the ship’s office and one in the engine room. These devices connect to the internet through a service such as FleetBroadband, a 3G capable data and voice service relayed through the Inmarsat-4 satellites. Reception varies throughout the world, resulting in higher-cost calls that are often dropped. Emails messages tend to be restricted to text-only format with a 10kb limit, and the ship’s master must perform manual connections to exchange email messages.

These limitations are quite restrictive, especially as many people today are accustomed to having instantaneous access to several forms of communication. Intertanko, the International Association of Independent Tanker Owners, recognizes that providing internet access to ships’ crews is a best business practice. It promotes employee attraction, retention, and satisfaction in a workplace that doubles as a living space. Training programs can be completed remotely while at sea, obviating the need to take precious time home to enroll in onshore programs.

Though the immediate cost of installing a ship communications system that could accommodate the free or prepaid use of internet and voice communications is relatively low, it still appears to be a factor dictating against providing such access. Shipowners are worried, perhaps not unreasonably, that readily accessible communications would be too great a distraction for ship’s crews, but at the same time the rest of the world’s workforce seems to manage. Like anywhere else, the use of personal communication technologies while on the clock would presumably be regulated by company policy. Additionally, the long-term benefits are arguably speculative and difficult to cognize, and there is not much activity from either the international legal or human rights communities regarding the issue.

When the International Labour Organization’s Maritime Labour Convention, 2006 (MLC) enters into force on Aug. 20, 2013, one of the most significant developments in the maritime industry’s history will have been achieved. Surprisingly, the MLC makes no mention of this issue. Despite its focus on the rights and welfare of seafarers, no attempt is made to codify such issues as a legal entitlement, a seafarer’s right. For such an isolated population, access to the internet is an empowering tool for seafarers to research their rights. A 2010 poll conducted by SRI indicated an overwhelming 96 percent of seafarers desired to learn more about their legal rights. Seafarers’ rights and welfare institutions recognizes these issues too, for a sizable part of their work involves providing telephone and internet access to the international seafarers visiting their respective ports.

International human rights law, for all of its concern with rights to life, quality of life, work, expression, family life, and so forth, has not considered the issue of access to communication technologies as being a rights issue. On land, it is colorable to argue it is not, and there is no such clear-cut right. For the more than 1.2 million seafarers worldwide, communication and engagement with their own communities as well as the world is of paramount importance, human rights doctrine is still nascent, and the prevailing industry position is a double-standard of reluctance and concern regarding the responsibility and professionalism of seafarers. Additionally, it is necessary for the future of the shipping industry that it strives to retain aspiring, young, and educated seafarers by making the positions desirable enough to compete with their land-based counterparts.




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.