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ITF: Seafarers Win New Connectivity Guarantees in MLC

seafarer cell phone
Image courtesy ITF

Published May 16, 2022 6:08 PM by The Maritime Executive

In the latest meeting of the Maritime Labor Convention's Special Tripartite Committee (STC), delegates agreed to create a right to connectivity for seafarers, including internet access. 

Satellite internet has provided seafarers with the ability to keep in touch with loved ones and stay abreast of happenings in the rest of the world, with a richer and more frequent connection to home than that allowed by the occasional phone conversation during a port call. Internet access at sea finds its way to the top of the list of priorities in every Seafarers' Happiness Index survey, and it is increasingly a consideration among seafarers when selecting an employer. 

The challenges of the pandemic have added to the importance of connectivity. Port calls have effectively ceased in many parts of the world due to perceived risk of contagion. At the peak of the COVID-19 crisis, many mariners were stuck on board without crew change for months beyond their contract, and a virtual connection to home was their only option. 

At the latest SLC meeting in Geneva on May 13, delegates from member states, shipowners' representatives and seafarers' organizations agreed to a "right to mandatory social connectivity for crews," including internet access, according to ITF.

“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," said ITF Seafarers Section Vice Chair Mark Dickinson. "A lack of contact with the outside world can have profound implications for seafarers’ wellbeing — which we saw the worst effects of during Covid."

Seafarers' representatives to the STC lobbied to ensure that if shipowners do decide to charge their crews for internet service, it should be the exception rather than the rule, and the charges should be "reasonable." 

Other notable changes adopted by the STC include a requirement that properly-fitting personal protective equipment must be made available on board, along with new measures to give seafarers improved access to free drinking water and quality food.

STC delegates also agreed to advance discussions on using the Maritime Labor Convention to address sexual harassment at sea. This parallels a similar line of effort at IMO, where the Maritime Safety Committee recently adopted a plan to incorporate anti-bullying / anti-harassment training into an STCW model course on social responsibility. "It is rare that an IMO Model Course is taken forward with priority and is developed and amended in such a short timeframe," noted Massachusetts-based think tank COPE, a division of Northeast Maritime Institute.

STC makes no changes to repatriation rules

ITF did not find success with a request for shipowners to pay for seafarers' homeward travel to their place of residence. At present, the MLC requires that seafarer must be repatriated at the owner's expense at the end of their contract. "Repatriated" does not explicitly mean returning the mariner to his or her home town, which could be thousands of miles away from the location where they land.

By leaving the seafarer at a major seaport or international airport, the shipowner can save the extra cost of airfare, lodging and insurance for the balance of the domestic trip. This is a potentially valuable savings in the pandemic era, given that national quarantine requirements may add extra lodging costs for returning seafarers. Shipowners' representatives insisted on keeping this cost savings during negotiations at the latest STC meeting, according to ITF.

“Shipowners outright rejected the proposal despite attempts at providing a compromise,” said Dickinson. “It is the first time in the history of the STC that one group has rejected an amendment outright.”