Maritime Labour Convention: Spain top of class
By Isabelle Smets | Monday 17 May 2010
Ensuring that people have decent working conditions at sea is an objective that is readily put forward when the social dimension of the Integrated Maritime Policy is addressed. EU member states could concretely move things forward in this respect by ratifying the International Labour Organisation’s Maritime Labour Convention because the text would then come into force worldwide. A real working code, the ILO’s convention contains provisions on working times and rest times for people working at sea – 1.2 million people globally. It makes a paid annual holiday compulsory and sets out minimum conditions in terms of housing, food and medical care.
The text dates back to 2006. Where do things stand in terms of EU ratifications? Only Spain has ratified, in February 2010, at the beginning of its EU Presidency.
The convention will only come into force once thirty countries representing at least 33% of the world’s tonnage have ratified it. By 1 May, seven had done so. Besides Spain, the countries were: the Bahamas, Liberia, the Marshall Islands, Norway, Panama and Bosnia-Herzegovina.
That is not many but enough for the 33% of global tonnage criterion to be met. The ratifications of Spain and Bosnia-Herzegovina, the last two to have taken this step, have brought the figure up to 45% of global tonnage. So ratification by all the EU member states would mean that the international convention comes into force. Once in force, it will allow member states that have ratified it to inspect ships from all countries – even those that have not ratified it – and to tackle them if they do not satisfy the minimum standards.
So what is the EU waiting for? Is the slowness of the member states a bad sign? It is not interpreted in that way. Philippe Alfonso, the political secretary of the European Transport Workers Federation (ETF) who is in charge of maritime issues, thinks that “things are underway" and that “the delays are not so significant” given the complexity of ratification mechanisms. Germany and France, in particular, have gone quite far in the process.
"I’ve got the impression that in a good many member states, the request has been made by the governments to legislators to come into line.” There is also lots of optimism at the ILO. The number of ratifications needed, says the organisation, should be achieved around the fifth anniversary of the convention, in early 2011. It is counting on the snowball effect that the Spanish ratification will cause in other EU countries. The entry into force of the text will in addition have a direct consequence in the EU: on the same day, an EU directive containing all its provisions will also be applied, minus the provisions on social security as that is not an EU competence. This is a directive that will make the jurisdictional checks of the convention possible, with infringement procedures in case of non-compliance.
Three questions to Philippe Alfonso
Europe is faced with a shortage of people at sea. Could the convention change things by guaranteeing decent employment conditions?
I don’t think that the implementation of the convention will overturn the major trend in the issue of maritime employments. Its interest is more in helping to tackle the problem of ‘sub-standard shipping’. Through checks by the state where the port is, we’ll be able to tackle ships that come via European ports and which do not respect minimum working standards. But it is an illusion to believe that it’ll solve the problem of jobs and the gradual disappearance of European savoir-faire.
The EU fully recognises this employment issue. Is the way that it is addressing it satisfactory?
It is mainly putting the emphasis on training, on Erasmus exchanges. But we are faced with a gradual disappearance of 'people at sea'. Will we curb this problem with Erasmus exchanges of young people? I doubt it. The Commission always focuses on the problem of attractiveness, ie that it is enough to have information campaigns and adverts for the sea to lure people in. But maritime training academies are full. Lots of people are interested. The problem comes from the job prospects that are on offer. Young qualified people, especially young officers, today envisage very short maritime careers. They quickly look to get employed in careers on land.
So what should be done?
One of the priorities is to tackle the problem of social dumping, which is now spreading to the ferries’ sector. There is discrimination within crews and ship-owners are quickly taking their flags down and replacing their EU crews with cheaper sailors from non-EU countries. The Commission needs to show more courage to deal with this problem and to stop passing off its responsibilities to the social partners and to hypothetical agreements on working conditions with crews. There is no sign of a change in the doctrine of ECSA [social partner representing ship-owners]. You need to legislate. For us, that continues to be a priority.
Ratification by all EU member states would mean the international entry into force of the convention