U.S. preparing compliance system for the Maritime Labor Convention’s August deadline

An international labor agreement creating standards for the working conditions of mariners goes into effect Aug. 20.

The Maritime Labor Convention (MLC) sets the worldwide rights of mariners to decent conditions of work and living. The goal is to create a level playing field for countries and shipowners so they are not undercut by competition from poorly run ships, according to the convention document. Among the many parts of the treaty are rules for mariners’ employment, hours of work and rest, accommodations, health protection, medical care, welfare and social security protection.

There’s one catch: The United States has not ratified this convention. But vessels from countries that have not adopted the maritime convention still must meet the convention’s standards when sailing to countries that have adopted the treaty. So U.S.-flag ships could be subject to lengthy inspections when traveling to these countries.

The Coast Guard is working on a voluntary inspection program for shipowners and operators to show compliance, through a certificate, with the requirements of the MLC, according to a draft Navigation and Vessel Inspection Circular (NVIC) published in March.

Although it is a voluntary program, owners of U.S.-flag vessels should take part, said Joseph Cox, president of the Chamber of Shipping of America.

“I would advise any American shipowner to get the voluntary certificate,” he said. “Whether it will be something that is persuasive to a Port State Control, we don’t know yet.” About 200 U.S.-flag vessels are impacted by the MLC, Cox said.

As of May, 40 countries have ratified the treaty, representing over 69 percent of the gross tonnage of the world’s ships, according to the website of the International Labor Organization.

U.S. ships which travel only in the Great Lakes and waters east of the Strait of Juan de Fuca are exempt from the convention.

Although Canada has ratified the treaty, the Coast Guard is working with Transport Canada to create an agreement that would allow each country to recognize current regulations as complying with the rules set down by the Labor Convention. One goal of this agreement would be to allow vessels of less than 500-gt operating between ports in the U.S. and Canada to not be subject to an MLC inspection or to carry a certificate showing voluntary compliance with the convention. Canada is confident this agreement will be reached by Aug. 20, said Karine Martel, a spokeswoman for Transport Canada.

The U.S. Coast Guard hoped to have the final version of its NVIC published by summer, said Lt. Cmdr. Chris Gagnon of the Coast Guard’s Office of Commercial Vessel Compliance. Voluntary compliance certificates from class societies can be issued soon after the NVIC is out, he said. Shipowners who want the Coast Guard to issue the certificate will have wait several months, he said, because the program has to be approved by the federal Office of Management and Budget.

The Coast Guard certificate does not have the same legal status as the MLC, said Douglas Stevenson, director of the Center for Seafarers’ Rights at Seamen’s Church Institute. “There is no obligation for any country to accept this certification,” he said.

Despite that, Stevenson said the voluntary certificate should carry some weight internationally. “Even if the foreign port does not accept that certificate as the Maritime Labor Certificate, they will at least be ahead of the game in terms of getting an inspection,” he said. “They will have their ducks in a row.”

Cox said the U.S. has been a supporter of the Maritime Labor Convention. The agreement is in the final stage of review by federal government agencies. The final step will be consideration by the U.S. Senate. It is important for American shipping for the MLC to be ratified by the U.S.

“Management and labor want this,” Cox said. “To not do this puts us in a disadvantaged position in our international trade and for American shipowners.”

By Professional Mariner Staff