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Internet access and social connectivity become mandatory rights for seafarers – but could be costly

Currently sitting in the comfort of your home or office can you imagine a life without access to the internet or social connectivity, especially when you are far away from loved ones for months on end.

Well, this is what many seafarers have had to endure for many years even after the advent of technology that could make this happen for them.

Internet access and social connectivity for seafarers

Access to the internet and social connectivity while onboard ships have become a mandatory right for seafarers as per updates to the Maritime Labour Convention 2006 (MLC). The Seafarers Group won the right to mandatory social connectivity for crews –including internet access, but while this is good news, it could prove costly for seafarers because shipowners and governments may seek to charge for it.

This was the result of the latest Special Tripartite Committee (STC) meeting that ended in Geneva on 13th May where the parties reached agreements on a number of changes including a commitment to better social connectivity for seafarers.

The MLC is an international treaty designed to protect seafarers’ rights and has been ratified by more than 100 countries, which represent over 90% of the world fleet.

In a press release announcing this win, Mark Dickinson, vice chair of the International Transport Workers’ Federation’s (ITF) Seafarers’ Section, STC vice-president and spokesperson for the Seafarers Group said “We’ve learned a lot during the Covid period and that has been driving us to improve the MLC,”.

Working for long periods at sea can be isolating and a lack of contact with the outside world can have profound implications for seafarers’ wellbeing — which we saw the worst effects of during Covid.

Being able to keep in touch with family and friends isn’t just a nice-to-have, it’s a basic human right. That’s why we fought so hard for seafarers to be given internet access and to have a mandatory provision in the MLC.” added Dickinson.

The Seafarers Group has lobbied that any charges levied on seafarers remain an exception, and if any charges are imposed that they are reasonable. Governments were also encouraged to increase internet access in ports and associated anchorages without cost to seafarers.

Seafarers repatriation rights remain archaic

The meeting however failed to reach an agreement on changes to the MLC’s terms on repatriation as demanded by the Seafarers Group. The Seafarers Group had demanded that the shipowner should cover the costs for a seafarer to disembark/land at his/her home location.

Currently, many seafarers are offloaded at areas which are far from their home which means that the seafarer has to cover his/her cost till home. As an example, ITF says “A Filipino, for example, who lives in Davao may find themselves dumped at Manila Airport 1,600 miles away from home. They then have a subsequent air journey of around 2.5 hours, costing them P2,500–3,000. In that final leg, the employer is no longer covering insurance, medical or other costs,“.

Many seafarers have been detrimentally impacted by quarantine measures introduced in many countries, which has exacerbated the risk of disruptions and costs to seafarers to get to their actual residence.” the release added.

Shipowners outright rejected the proposal despite attempts at providing a compromise,” said Dickinson. “As seafarers’ representatives, we’re disappointed. We’re buoyed by the support of some governments, but still, it is the first time in the history of the STC that one group has rejected an amendment outright.

ITF General Secretary said that the refusal of shipowners to negotiate on this issue is heart-breaking given what seafarers who were caught up in Covid restrictions endured.

It’s a shame that after all the collaboration during the Covid period, when we worked together across the industry to defend seafarers’ rights, that shipowners have failed to engage in dialogue at all, especially over such an important issue for their workforce. I’m sure that shipping executives’ costs are covered door to door, why shouldn’t a seafarer deserve the same right, especially given the cost-of-living crisis that many are facing.

A group of EU governments also sought an amendment to ensure a clearer commitment to the de facto maximum period of service of 11 months that seafarers can serve at sea before shipowners are obliged to get them home. Shipowners, and some governments, insisted on flexibility and requiring seafarers 12 months sea time to qualify, especially for trainees. The Seafarers Group refused to concede, citing fatigue and safety concerns.

It is hard to believe that in 2022 we have to argue that 12-months service is too long,” said Cotton. “And this doesn’t even account for the fact that crewing levels have halved, and the reality that shore leave is now more restricted than ever. Shipowners say it is a freedom of choice for seafarers, but they have all the power, so it actually amounts to forced labour.

Other changes 

The STC did agree a number of significant changes to the MLC, including:

  • Personal protective equipment must be made available in sizes that suit seafarers onboard, including for women.
  • Improved access to free drinking water, quality provisions and balanced diets were agreed as part of food and catering rules.
  • Clarification on responsibilities for governments to provide information to seafarers on mandatory systems of protection that must be put in place by recruitment and placement agencies.

The STC also adopted several resolutions that will guide the future work of the Committee. These included further work on the eradication of sexual harassment at sea, the sustainability of the financial security provisions provided by P&I Clubs and insurers, and the ability of seafarers to enforce seafarers’ employment agreements against shipowners.

In his closing remarks, Dickinson said he was disappointed that since the MLC entered into force, it appears that shipowners focus was on agreeing technical changes, rather than resolutions that support the continuous improvement of seafarers’ conditions.

They have lost sight of the original tripartite vision of the MLC to enhance the minimum standards for seafarers. Unless this changes path, it will have profound consequences on the future of the shipping industry.

ITF General Secretary Cotton called on the industry to continue to collectively tackle challenges that face the industry and seize on opportunities to make shipping a decent, safe and career for seafarers, especially for attracting women into the industry.

Through Covid, ITF and ICS worked so well together, and with other shipping partners such as IMEC, so it would be an incredible shame if we didn’t continue to work together in that spirit. Decent work for seafarers must be at the heart of this.

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About the ITF: The International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) is a democratic, affiliate-led federation of transport workers’ unions recognised as the world’s leading transport authority. We fight passionately to improve working lives, connecting trade unions and workers’ networks from 147 countries to secure rights, equality and justice for their members. We are the voice of the almost-20 million women and men who move the world.

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