September 08, 2011

MLC-2006- slow road to nowhere?

It was supposed to be akin to the second coming, the fourth pillar of a regulatory regime that -along with the STCW conventions, MARPOL and SOLAS- would ensure quality shipping and seafarer rights forever. The ILO's Maritime Labour Convention (MLC) 2006 was a result of a resolution backed by governments and ship owners made way back in 2001. Five years later, when the ILO adopted the MLC in 2006, its Director-General Juan Somavia said the organisation had made 'labour history' for the world's more than 1.2 million seafarers, providing them comprehensive rights and protection at work. Ship owners, unions and assorted talking heads fell over themselves to pronounce the MLC a unique and vital piece of maritime legislation.

So vital, it turns out, that today, five years after 2006 and a decade after the original resolution, just half the required 30 countries needed to ratify the MLC have actually signed up (the 33% global tonnage requirement was met long ago). We are now told that the MLC 2006 is unlikely to come into force before the latter half of 2012. They hope.

Countries that have signed up so far are Antigua and Barbuda, the Bahamas, Benin, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Canada, Croatia, Liberia, Marshall Islands, Norway, Panama, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Singapore, Spain, and Switzerland. I count just six countries in that list of fifteen that have any significant stake in the shipping industry, either as ship owners or labour suppliers. I do not see the US there, and neither do I see Greece, Japan, Korea, the UK, the Philippines, China or many other important maritime countries. Or India. What I do see is, once again, a system that will delay and dawdle- as it continued to do for decades with seafarer work hours and rest regulations- over any initiative that aims at improving the quality of a mariner's life at sea.

I am sure that a lot of this malingering has to do with an industry that wants to delay spending money on the MLC for as long as possible. Apologists will say that these delays are inevitable given austerity measures today that dilute commitments to ratify the MLC. They will also point out, as some countries have, that considerable changes have to be made to domestic laws to bring them in line with MLC requirements, and this takes time.

These are just excuses. The austerity argument smacks of the mindset in the industry that sees any expense connected with improving a seafarer's life as extra 'welfare costs', like charity, when they should be seen instead as the costs of doing business. We are talking about costs related to long overdue seafarer rights, you know; we are not talking about not giving alms to beggars because our pockets are tight.

In any case, the lethargy is selective; the sloth in ratifying the MLC disappears when money has to be made off it. Similar to the near cancerous growth in training after the STCW 1995 circus- that I believe actually degraded quality instead of enhancing it- the MLC, and the Manila amendments to the same STCW, have allowed the industry to roll out new useless courses today to supplement the old useless ones. Many people are making money off the MLC and the STCW Manila amendments. Meanwhile, seafarers are, to add insult to the injury of delayed ratification, being made to waste their time and money to 'upgrade' themselves. Some ship-owners are spending money preparing their ships (and offices, thanks to an increase in procedures and documentation) to handle the impending MLC and STCW regime. The business of audits, inspections and certification is also doing well, thank you very much. No doubt, this entire racket will explode in the next year or two; considering the number of vessels that MLC affects, it will be impossible to have all of them certified in time otherwise. We know -after the ISPS and ISM experience- that the creation of instruments and tools needed to comply with international regulations takes time. We count on it. It is big business. For some, it is the only business.

This is the most distasteful part of the MLC (and STCW 2010) carnival- but the main purpose of almost any legislation in shipping has been, for a long time, the promotion of the business of regulation, not an improvement in quality, so we should be used to it by now.

Compare the passage of the MLC 2006 with that of some earlier regulations. The ISPS Code- yet another iffy regime that has done little of what it touted it would do- was agreed upon in December 2002 and brought into force in just a year and a half, in July 2004. The STCW 95 amendments were adopted in July 95 and implemented a year and a half later in February 97. Major revisions to this convention were adopted in Manila in June 2010; they are to come into force on Jan. 1, 2012. It is telling that the ratification of the MLC 2006- the 'fourth pillar' and all that jazz- is on the slow road to nowhere.

The MLC is too far gone not to be eventually ratified, so that will happen with some kicking and screaming. I am willing to make a small wager here, though; I predict that even after the MLC2006 comes into force, its thrust will be considerably diluted because of slanted audits and selective priorities similar to those seen with the STCW 'rest period' regulations. I bet there will the usual wink-wink arrangement between all the shore-based stakeholders in the industry. Auditors and Port State Control Officials will just not bother too much with inconvenient rules that are to a mariner's benefit except after an incident. They did this with the working hours rules; the same thing will happen with the MLC 2006. Issues related to workplace conditions and improvement of the mariner's life will be slow-tracked. Owners will be in minimum compliance mode here. Auditors will choose what to inspect, obviously, and paper documentation will triumph over practical good sense, as it usually has. Regulators, both national and international, will ignore this non-compliance, meanwhile spending a fortune on junkets that will, no doubt, bemoan poor MLC implementation. And managers will hold fancy seminars to 'update' hapless sailors.

The crew's rights will come last as usual.

I am betting on history and the mentality of the industry- and the fact that the law- when the MLC 2006 eventually comes into force- is one thing. Character is quite another.


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