Non-compliance with new maritime labour laws could result in North Sea supply ships being detained, says expert

Out-Law News | 07 Aug 2014 | 4:31 pm | 2 min. read

Supply vessels and support ships operating in the North Sea could be detained in port if they do not comply with new rules governing working conditions at sea, an expert has said.

The Maritime Labour Convention (MLC), an international agreement which safeguards the employment rights, working conditions and health care of seafarers, came into force in the UK on 7 August. Shipping and maritime law expert Katie Williams of Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law.com, said that although most UK operators were already compliant, vessels operating or passing through UK waters under other national flags could now be at risk of enforcement action.

"The Maritime Labour Convention consolidates what has been in place in the UK for some years, but a major change is that for the first time it has an enforcement mechanism with real 'teeth'," she said.

"Many shipping companies and charterers have invested significant time and effort in trying to ensure that they will comply with the new regime, however the Maritime and Coastguard Agency as the UK's enforcement body will be looking to set down a marker that they intend to rigorously apply the new laws. It would be a nightmare scenario for a boat which is chartered at thousand of pounds a day to be detained in port, but it is feasible that in extreme circumstances this could happen," she said.

In addition, she said that there was also a risk that a British-flagged vessel which would be viewed as compliant in the UK could be detained in a foreign port "in circumstances which we would find difficult to understand and this could lead to expensive delays". This could happen if a complaint was made by a crew member and local port authorities had taken a different approach to interpretation of the MLC, she said.

The MLC was established in 2006 by the International Labour Organisation, an agency of the United Nations that deals with labour issues; and entered into force on 20 August 2013. It applies to all commercial ships entering the harbours of parties to the treaty, as well as to all states flying the flag of a state that is a party. The UK became the 41st ILO member state to ratify the MLC on 7 August 2013 and brought with it the 'flag states' of Bermuda, Cayman Islands, Gibraltar and the Isle of Man.

Under the treaty, ship owners are responsible for ensuring seafarers receive basic levels of pay, sick pay, holiday entitlement and medical care. If they cannot prove that these standards are in force maritime authorities can detain the vessel in port. So far, detentions have been ordered in at least 10 cases involving ships in Canada, Denmark, the Russian Federation and Spain which were sailing under the flags of Cyprus, Liberia, the Netherlands, Panama and Tanzania.

Williams said that although the MLC would protect seafarers and make owners and operators of commercial ships more accountable, those owners and operators should familiarise themselves with the requirements as they were now equally responsible for matters that had previously solely been a matter for employers.

"Traditionally, grievances or disputes over wages or other working terms would have been a private employment issue between seafarer and employer, but this law creates a new and specific complaints procedure which can be directed squarely at ship owners or operators who will face the same obligations as the employer," she said.

"The MLC is something of a revolution in seafarers' employment rights and ship owners and vessel operators should seek specialist advice on existing contractual and commercial relationships and new obligations they must now address," she said.