September 06, 2012

Why the Maritime Labour Convention won’t work

Finally. Six years after being adopted in Geneva, the ratification process is complete and the Maritime Labour Convention will come into force around this time next year. Reams have been written about the MLC; alternatively described in glowing terms as the  "fourth pillar" of the regulatory regime - SOLAS, STCW and Marpol being the other three- and the "seafarers' bill of rights," much hype has been generated around it. 

Way too much, actually, which is another reason why it will probably fail.

The idea behind the MLC is solid enough. Seafarers be employed only by licenced agencies and entitled to decent living and working conditions, sufficiently manned ships, proper rest, regular communications home, regular pay, medical care (equivalent to shore based personnel), social security and welfare benefits for themselves and their dependants. The MLC regime says or implies that it will inspect something like a hundred thousand ships regularly as “a single, coherent instrument” that will provide a "level playing field" to all ship owners. 

(Aside- whenever anybody says "level playing field," I hear "I want protection!", so I wonder how many developed countries want to use the MLC as an economic stick to beat developing countries with) 

Anyway. Inadvertently conceding that much other regulation has gone southwards in practice, the (too) many pillars of the industry (where many a dying career is resuscitated with each new regulation) tell us that the MLC will not be just a paper exercise, and ships can and will be detained if the overall treatment of crews aboard is not "decent". Crews will be interviewed to ensure this. PSC inspectors will have wide-ranging powers based on what they observe- a yawning crewmember may ring alarm bells on fatigue, for example. And a substandard ship- that we seafarers well know can be pinpointed easily after a ten-minute walk through its deck, accommodation or engine room- will be unable to ply our safe seas and clean oceans any longer. And all seafarers will live happily ever after.

Poppycock in la la land.

The fatal flaw in the 'hail MLC' argument is that it presupposes that regulatory and industry attitudes will magically change next year. Or that corruption will reduce. Or even that the same people who circumvent or blatantly ignore essential elements of the existing three pillars- SOLAS, STCW and MARPOL- will suddenly and inexplicably start applying, with near-religious fervour, the same laws just because they appear in the MLC . 

The most striking cases in point I can think of here relate to proper manning of ships and fatigue- both covered by existing regulations, and both ignored almost completely. Does anybody mean to tell me seriously that the MLC regime will detain obviously undermanned ships and go head to head with Flag States over this? Or that rest period violations- a serious deficiency under MLC too- will now be scrutinised absolutely? Hah. 

Besides, MLC enforcement will - as all others before it- be likely used in the hands of corrupt PSC officials who will be hand in glove with the many substandard managers, unscrupulous classification society surveyors, calculating insurers and uncaring regulators out there. All of these elements will likely use the MLC to line their pockets, expand their fiefdoms or promote the commercial interests of their organisations at the expense of the seafarer. They always have. What has changed now? A new legislation? Haven’t we seen that happen before? There is hardly a surge of good faith out there this time round. Judging by the increasing statistics of ship owners who are reneging on paying owed salaries to crews or abandoning them, quite the opposite. 

It is also clear that some things have not been properly thought through by the MLC drafters. What looks good on paper often does not work; the potential for abuse within the MLC regime is large. Take one element of the complaint mechanism. It is not just the individual seafarer- protected in the MLC- that can complain about "not decent" working and living conditions. The whistle can be blown by almost anybody- a professional body, an association, a trade union or any person with an interest in the safety of the ship, including an interest in safety or health hazards to seafarers on board. Wow. Imagine what a disgruntled crewmember or dishonest shoreside functionary can do with this.

To expect that substandard shipping will disappear or that a seafarer will start being treated decently next year seems wildly optimistic. It is not just obviously third-rate ships or owners that are the problem; today, the vast majority of seafarers are treated indecently by managers or owners that are nonetheless considered "good" by a copious swathe of the industry. Go around with some stellar ship management company names and ask their seagoing employees confidentially, if you do not believe me. 

Under the circumstances, the best I hope for is that the MLC regime will make it marginally more difficult for substandard operators to survive, and that some progress may be seen over the next few decades. (I do not say this flippantly; seafarer fatigue became an issue in the late eighties, and, twenty odd years later, is still blatantly ignored despite all the STCW hoo-ha). 

One widespread problem with circumvention of existing regulations like SOLAS has been that sailors have not usually stopped ships because they are unseaworthy-it is not in their DNA. I can’t therefore see them stopping ships next August because living and working conditions are not ‘decent’- not in large enough numbers to make a difference. The MLC would work spectacularly well if- and only if- they were to do so. It will not work on the assumption that the industry has suddenly discovered some decency or goodwill towards its sailors; goodwill died and was buried at sea long ago.

Prejudging the event, I may be, and I am the first to admit that, but I have faith in the system. It will not change with just the introduction of a new piece of paper, regardless of how much hype precedes it. 


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