MLC – could be the beginning of the end for flags of convenience

”We should not count on too much at the start, but basically this is the instrument that has been missing to get rid of flags of convenience.” Chief Inspector Jan Borgman at the Transport Agency in Göteborg has great faith in the new maritime labour convention.
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The MLC requires that there is sufficient food of good quality board.

“We should not count on too much at the start, but basically this is the instrument that has been missing to get rid of flags of convenience.” Chief Inspector Jan Borgman at the Transport Agency in Göteborg has great faith in the new maritime labour convention.

We usually talk about the three pillars of shipping: SOLAS, MARPOL and STCW, which regulate safety, the environment and qualifications in that order. Now another major convention is about to come into force. MLC, the Maritime Labour Convention, is about seafarers’ working environment, social conditions and employment conditions, and is described as the fourth pillar that will make the regulation of shipping complete.
“Unscrupulous shipping operators will not be able to compete by taking on low-pay crews anymore, but will have to take responsibility for individual sailors. Internationally, this will have a major impact in the long-term,” says Jan Borgman, who is taking part in the adaptation to the new convention at the Transport Agency.
The MLC is a weighty tome that combines 37 existing conventions and about the same number of recommendations. Salaries, sick leave, relief systems, health care, cabin sizes, diets and design of messes are just few examples of the topics covered. Swedish ships already comply with most of the requirements in the convention, but there will be some changes even here. Medical certificates for seafarers will have to be renewed every other year instead of every fourth year at present in the coastal navy, collective agreements will be translated into English and minimum heights for ceilings in newly-built ships will be increased. In addition, the cook on ships with crews over ten men must be trained as a ship’s cook. On ships with fewer crew members, the person in charge of food onboard must have documented knowledge of hygiene.
“It will require a certificate or paper showing that they have received approved training. This means a return to the ship’s cook courses, if they are not already in use,” says Jan Borgman.
One other change that will be noticed on Swedish ships is that cabin inspections will be reintroduced.
“The captain or his representative must inspect the cabins and living environment onboard along with a union representative or a safety officer to ensure that all facilities are in place and that the standard is acceptable. Cabin inspections were abolished in Sweden a few years ago because they were seen as intrusive, but with MLC they will be required again. Inspections must be documented and we will make spot checks and check the documentation,” says Jan Borgman.
Includes all countries
When MLC enters into force it will cover all countries, even those who have not signed the convention. This means that all ships must comply with the convention.
“The idea is that you can’t hide behind a flag of convenience anymore; the same requirements will apply to everyone. It is hoped that the abuses which currently exist in shipping will disappear, such as blacklisting seafarers who demand their rights or charging sailors for brokering their jobs. But it will take time. We see how the other conventions are complied with and they have received a lot of supplements over the years. There is no evidence that this will be any different ,” says Jan Borgman.
All ships, irrespective of size and speed bracket, must fulfil the requirements of the convention. Ships of 500 tonnes gross or more in international traffic will require an MLC certificate, verifying that the ship lives up to the convention (Gotland ships included). The certificate must be renewed every five years with an intermediate inspection. Responsibility for certification lies with the flag state and will be checked in foreign ports during port state controls.
“The basic principle of the port state control is that a certificate must be respected and it is assumed that it is correct. But if you walk around the ship and discover that things are not right, you have to move forward and examine the facts,” says Jan Borgman.
Under the new convention the Transport Agency will be required to follow up any complaints about poor conditions onboard. If the criticism is perceived as true , the agency must investigate the underlying causes.
“There is reason to believe that there may be a great many such cases here in northern Europe. We have a strong tradition of listening to the unions, and it is likely that sailors from other countries know where it may be worthwhile to complain,” says Jan Borgman.
Each country must also establish procedures for handling complaints. Problems will be resolved as locally as possible, in the first instance with the captain and the shipping company. If that is unsuccessful, the flag state as well as the seafarers’ organizations will be contacted. If a solution is still not found, the inspector may decide to suspend the vessel. And if the shipping company and flag state do not take responsibility for the crew, it is the country where the vessel is which is required to act in the best interests of the seafarers.
“Let’s say that the shipping company goes bankrupt, dumps the vessel and crew in a Swedish port and the flag state does not do anything to help sailors with food, return flights, medical care and so on. Then the Swedish government must step in and ensure that the seafarers’ rights are safeguarded. Costs associated with this must be resolved by the countries through diplomatic channels,” says Jan Borgman.
If a shipping company cannot remedy a defect immediately, but promises to do so soon, the ship may be released subject to a new inspection at the next port.
“Ships that do not perform well will have to run the gauntlet and finally we will get rid of them, at least here in northern Europe. If the Mediterranean countries also put on pressure there will be a big difference in the whole of Europe,” says Jan Borgman.

Changes for Swedish seafarers, ship owners and authorities
New requirements since the MLC as it is today is not incorporated into Swedish law:

Training requirements for ships’ cooks
Seafarers entitled to emergency dental care
The time period for employers’ responsibility to challenge the costs of healthcare, food and accommodation as a result of disease will be extended
The time period for employers’ responsibility to pay sickness benefit will be extended
Changes will be made in the Social Security Act
Seafarer’s certification and declaration of conformity with MLC will be introduced
Sweden’s obligations in terms of port state control will be extended
Source: The Transport Agency

Great lead for Swedish shipowners
For shipping companies and vessels the convention initially involves the need to organize a system of controls and documentation. According to Jan Borgman, Swedish ship owners have a big advantage in this respect because the system that the convention advocates is similar to that used in systematic work environment activities.
“We are already on track with this and once you have set up the system itself, it is a rolling process. I would like to see it put into the ISM (International Safety Maritime Code).
MLC is an ILO convention (International Labour Organization) and was pushed through in 2006. It comes into force one year after 30 countries with at least 33% of the world’s merchant tonnage have signed it. The tonnage rate is already fulfilled and to date, 14 countries have ratified it. In Sweden preparations are ongoing for its ratification, which according to the Ministry of Industry is scheduled for the autumn.
Linda Sundgren

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