Dominic Bulfin, director Bargate Murray, explains how the Seafarer's Employment Agreement (SEA) withstood the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic.
One of the many facets of crew welfare that COVID-19 has tested has been the Seafarer’s Employment Agreement (SEA) — a contract, like all others, that did not anticipate a disruptive pandemic.
“What we have found from years of working with yacht managers is that one of the biggest causes of crew issues is uncertainty in the contracts. If a given situation is well provided for in the SEA, then everyone tends to get along,” says Dominic Bulfin, director in the superyacht group of Bargate Murray, a luxury asset law firm in London.
“It was a case of trying to use as much insight and experience as you could to foresee what sorts of problems might come up throughout the season.”
Yet when the pandemic took hold of the world, uncertainty was rampant. No one knew if the disruption would last a month or a year, while yacht managers were asking if they could make crew serve on board, whether crew could insist on being sent home, and if so, on what basis?
“Contracts almost always have force majeure clauses in them (covering extraordinary events) but those provisions are rarely tested in the real world. In some respects, we found the provisions to be resilient and fairly well suited to cover an unknown. In other areas, we had to act quickly to devise new and bespoke provisions to be incorporated into our clients’ agreements,” says Bulfin. “It was a case of trying to use as much insight and experience as you could to foresee what sorts of problems might come up throughout the season.” This was no easy task with the situation constantly evolving.
In the end, the law firm answered the unknowns by looking at what was reasonable: per the MLC, employers must take reasonable precautions to prevent the spread of disease on board. Bulfin promoted an equally beneficial relationship of owner generosity and crew loyalty. All of his clients’ yachts remained fully crewed, and the firm created new garden leave provisions to allow crew to stay home with pay when a yacht’s movements were restricted.
“We only had one individual who refused to take a flight back,” he says. “At that time there was no impediment to returning to the yacht, no reasonable excuse to not return. In fact, with measures in place on board, the yacht was probably one of the safest places in Europe to be at the time. For that reason, the crewmember concerned was made aware that they were refusing a reasonable request of the master, which is grounds for dismissal under their SEA.”
This article originally ran in the February 2021 issue of Dockwalk.