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Maritime rule fails to cap seafarer tours of duty

While there are no strict guidelines for maximum length of service in the Maritime Labour Convention, there are explicit provisions on paid annual leave, shore leave and a right to repatriation on the expiration of a seafarer’s contract

Outcome of any case would depend on interpretation of exact wording

THE Maritime Labour Convention does not specifically cap the duration of seafarers’ tours of duties, although Panama’s decision to allow them to be extended to up to 17 months could still be open to legal challenge, according to a legal expert.

The outcome in any such case would hang on an interpretation of the exact wording of the convention, said Stephanie Barrett, a barrister at Quadrant Chambers.

While there are no strict guidelines for maximum length of service, there are the explicit provisions on paid annual leave, shore leave and a right to repatriation on the expiration of a seafarer’s contract. 

One section of the convention “sets out that a flag state should ensure that there are appropriate provisions in its laws or in collective bargaining agreements, prescribing a maximum service period on board, following which the seafarer is entitled to repatriation, with such period to be less than 12 months.

“That would indicate that a flag state deliberately allowing seafarers to stay on board for 17 months at a time is not in accordance with the MLC.”

In terms of enforcement, most of the relevant provisions concern enforcement against individual shipowners, with the flag state itself having a key role in terms of ensuring compliance.

But the mechanisms for enforcement against a non-conforming flag state are less clear.

Mark Dickinson, general secretary of officers’ union Nautilus International, has called for all Panama-flagged ships to be targeted for inspection by port state control for MLC breaches. 

“That is certainly one avenue worth exploring, because seafarers are entitled to complain to port state control about MLC breaches. Otherwise, I believe that complaints can be made to the International Labour Organisation,” said Ms Barrett. 

Where seafarers believe that the UK Ship Register had not complied with its obligations, it is possible to apply for judicial review of a particular decision.

There is a precedent in Wilson v The Secretary of State for Transport (Rev 1) [2015] EWHC 2330, in which a seafarer unsuccessfully brought proceedings against the Maritime and Coastguard Agency for failing to enforce the MLC, in which the ILO was joined as an ‘interested party’.

The issue is whether similar avenues exist under Panamanian law, and specific local legal advice would be needed on that point, said Ms Barrett.

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