Academic journal article Chicago Journal of International Law

The Maritime Labour Convention: An Adequate Guarantee of Seafarer Rights, or an Impediment to True Reforms?

Academic journal article Chicago Journal of International Law

The Maritime Labour Convention: An Adequate Guarantee of Seafarer Rights, or an Impediment to True Reforms?

Article excerpt


Seafarers, the laborers who work on freight ships engaged in domestic and international trade, compose a vital part of the global economy. Around 80 percent of world trade involves ocean shipping, and, as a result, the health of foreign commerce is inextricably linked to the work done by seafarers.1

Labor conditions for seafarers are often suboptimal. These poor working conditions result from the temporary nature of their work and the unfavorable bodies of law that seafarers may be subjected to dependent upon the flag under which they sail. The Maritime Labour Convention ("Convention"), which was adopted by the International Labour Organization ("ILO") on February 23, 2006, aims to improve labor conditions for seafarers around the world by establishing standard rights for all seafarers.2 While Member Nations of the ILO determine whether or not to ratify the Convention, it is important for them to consider whether this agreement will deliver on its promise to provide seafarers with the improved rights and conditions they have long requested.

This Development aims to review the various difficulties particular to the seafaring profession and to consider whether the proposed Convention will successfully address these concerns. The Development outlines the framework of the Convention, discusses the Convention's inadequacies, and makes suggestions for improvement.

While the Convention represents a serious advance over the current amalgamation of international laws regarding seafarer rights, it provides only a modest benefit to seafarers because its mandates are incomplete, largely discretionary, and potentially unenforceable. Ratification of the Convention is likely to discourage any further developments in seafarers' rights for the foreseeable future, so any problems that are not addressed now, such as availability of visas for shore leave and protection of the right to strike, are likely to remain significant problems for future generations.


The unique employment circumstances that seafarers face, such as the temporary nature of each job and the difficulties inherent in working at sea for an extended period of time, necessitate a specialized set of labor regulations to ensure that these workers are treated fairly under the law. Labor laws that dictate employment relationships on land are not perfectly applicable to the seafaring industry, as seafarers on ships do not enjoy the same immediate resources (such as hospitals and lawyers) and recourses (namely, the courts and mediators) as do their land-dwelling counterparts.

A primary concern for seafarers is their own health and well-being. Because workers are generally isolated on their ships or are spending brief periods of time in foreign ports around the world, it is essential that their health and any necessary medical care be provided for by the shipowners for whom they work.3 In addition, since they are isolated on the ship, which, in essence, is their office, it is crucial that strict maximum hour laws be imposed and mandatory rest periods be provided.

Another concern shared by seafarers and shipowners alike is the declining effectiveness of onboard training.4 Because of reductions in the number of crew members per ship, faster turnarounds on shipping jobs, more frequent crew changes, and multinational crews with divergent language and cultural backgrounds, such training has become considerably more difficult.5 This negatively impacts seafarers because they are unprepared to accomplish the tasks expected of them and may be more likely to suffer injury as a result. It also adversely impacts shipowners because untrained crews are less capable of skillfully and efficiendy performing required tasks.

The greatest difficulty faced by seafarers is the fact that their legal rights are often hard to discern, as are the jurisdictions in which these rights can be enforced. …

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