The Trouble with MLC, 2006

27 March 2009 By Lauren Beck
Photo: Capt. Mark O'Connell

Although no crewmember would describe their crew quarters as luxurious – unless you’re very, very fortunate – most wouldn’t consider them squalid, either. That’s not necessarily true on board commercial ships and container vessels and that fact is going to have some serious repercussions throughout the yachting industry.

The ILO Maritime Labour Convention, 2006 was drafted with the objective to set minimum labor standards to address the health, safety and welfare of seafarers on board ships. “It’s about respect for the seafarers – [right now] they’re treated like a commodity…this would take care of the basics,” said Lloyd’s Register’s ILO Development Manager Roland Ives, who addressed a crowd at the Seatrade Cruise Shipping Conference in Miami, March 19.

Applying the labor principles as laid out by the MLC seems pretty straightforward when it comes to tankers and cargo ships. But their elegant superyacht cousins are a different story.

“MLC 2006 will be the most explosive Convention to hit the marine industry,” said Peter Southgate, the deputy divisional director of the Cayman Islands Shipping Registry, a panelist at a manning conference held later that day.

No arguments there – the superyacht industry falls into a gray area and that seems to be the cause of much confusion.

Does the MLC apply? Yes – yachts are ships, crew are seafarers. And there is no minimum tonnage limit unless specifically stated in each individual title of the Convention. The gray area seems to lie in how each flag state will interpret the Convention and apply it to superyachts.

Some of the problems seem to stem from the definitions and interpretations of certain words used in the MLC. To begin, the definition of the term “seafarer” may be up for interpretation. According to the Convention, a seafarer is “any person who is employed or engaged or works in any capacity on board a ship to which this Convention applies.”

The Convention applies to all “ships, whether publicly or privately owned, ordinarily engaged in commercial activities ….” There seems to be no consensus yet on what the meaning of “ordinarily engaged in commercial activity” is, leaving room for debate when it comes to chartering.

According to Ives, two flag states currently have two different interpretations of the MLC and how it will be applied to superyachts. Although Ives did not name either flag state, one, he reports, may not include the superyacht sector in the scope of the MLC. The second, he says, may include only yachts 24 meters or larger in its definition.

“It’s very, very unfortunate if flag states view it differently, for after all, aren’t they [the crew on board] all seafarers?” Ives said.

It’s clear that there is a way to go to iron out the snags in the implementation and what it means exactly to the yachting industry. Ives believes that it may fall to each flag state to inspect its own yachts, but that does leave room for fragmentation.

At the time, Lloyd’s reported that current projections have the MLC 2006 on track for ratification in 2011, although it probably will be sooner. Ratification requires 30 member countries, representing 33 percent of the total world gross tonnage, to sign the Convention. Five countries, including Liberia, the Marshall Islands, The Bahamas, Panama and Norway, have already ratified the convention, with several others informally expressing intent to do so by 2010.

“Get your house in order before it’s too late,” Ives said.

For more on the MLC, see the article in the April 2009 issue of Dockwalk, which can be viewed through Digital Dockwalk.