Crew change crisis: Governments need to heed MLC obligations

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Crew change crisis: Governments need to heed MLC obligations – IHS Markit Safety at Sea

September 2, 2020 Gabriella Twining, SAS reporter

Crew members wearing face masks as a precaution against the spread of corona virus, after the ship docked. Credit: Robin Utrecht/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Proper enforcement of the Maritime Labour Convention 2006 (MLC) is the only way to ensure seafarers are repatriated home. Governments, and flag States, need to carry out their legislative obligations under MLC so that the crew change crisis is not exacerbated further, maritime experts say.

There are currently an estimated 200,000 seafarers globally stuck onboard, and more stuck at home waiting to join a vessel, due to global COVID-19 travel restrictions imposed by governments. However, there is no reason legislatively that crew change cannot happen. Standard A.2.5.1 – Repatriation in the MLC states that once a seafarer’s employment agreement expires onboard they are entitled to repatriation. Paragraph 5 specifies that should the ship owner fail to make arrangements or meet the cost of repatriation for the seafarer, the responsibility then falls to the flag State. Should the flag State fail in making the necessary arrangements, it is then the responsibility of the nation state in which the seafarer finds themselves or the nation state of the seafarer to carry out the repatriation. The cost of repatriation will then be recovered from the ship owner, according to the standard.

Dr. Cleopatra Doumbia-Henry, president, World Maritime University, who spearheaded work on the MLC at the ILO, commented to SAS that the main issue in the crew change crisis is the continued reluctance of many countries to enable seafarers to disembark in ports, to transit and transfer through airports, and to enable seafarers to return home after their tour of duty. She noted that many seafarers today come from the developing world and must go through multiple transit points in order to get home. “It is therefore critically important not only for flag States and shipowners to assume their responsibility with respect to repatriation, but also for countries to enable seafarers to transit and transfer through their ports and airports to enable them to return home after their long tour of duty,” she said.

COVID-19 has undoubtedly created unprecedented challenges for shipping and governments to follow MLC regulations. As such, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) released guidance on 10 July which outlined the extensions and exemptions to MLC requirements, to tackle the impact COVID-19 was having on the shipping industry. However, the guidance states that while authorities are encouraged to be pragmatic in their approach during these exceptional circumstances, they should ensure that the pandemic is not used as an excuse to breach MLC.

According to Natalie Shaw, director of employment affairs, International Chamber of Shipping (ICS), the guidance provides the argument of force majeure, (where unforeseeable circumstances prevent actors from fulfilling their contractual obligations), which effectively enables flag States  and governments who are experiencing the current challenges and temporarily not having to fulfil their responsibilities under the MLC.

However, the notion of force majeure no longer applies the moment an option is available to comply with MLC; for example, the availability of flights or transport options for crew. As the guidance states, “circumstances rendering performance more difficult or burdensome do not constitute a case of force majeure”. The guidance even encourages governments to limit contract extensions only to cover the time it takes for the crew to reach the next port, and should even consider diverting a ship to a port where crew changes can be carried out.

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