Seafarers are among the most regulated of all workers. Almost every aspect of lives
aboard ship is regulated: their hiring, their dismissal, their working conditions,
their sleep, their food, their health, their sickness, their recreation, and even their
deaths. Seafarers face particular perils, endure substantial physical hardships, put
up with strict discipline, and suffer lonesome separations from home. They have
special lives and work, and they need special laws to protect them.
The courts and legislatures regard seafarers as a special category of workers requiring
exceptional consideration and treatment. Seafarers are highly skilled professionals,
but they are also very vulnerable to exploitation, abuse, and discrimination.
Their highly mobile workplace takes them from country to country and beyond.
Seafarers are often far away from the land-based institutions that provide stability,
predictability, and the protections that land-based workers take for granted. They
are strangers and friendless almost everywhere they go. They are usually foreigners
in the ports they visit and are often treated with suspicion by local authorities.
The laws regulating seafarers and protecting their rights are contained in the general
maritime law and in statutes enacted by maritime nations. The statutes are
often influenced by the general maritime law and by international conventions.
The general maritime law is customary international maritime law that developed
from commercial customs and practices that developed in ancient shipping.
The legal doctrines and industry customs that developed often had no analogy
to those for land-based occupations. Protecting seafarers was one of the principal
reasons for developing maritime law.The protections for seafarers were also based
upon commercial interests. The maritime industry depended upon recruiting and
retaining skilled seafarers. Accordingly, protecting seafarers was in the shipowners’
and maritime industry’s self-interest. In simple terms, commercial success and national
prosperity depended upon attracting and retaining skilled and reliable ships’
crews. Many of the motivations that led to developing seafarers’ rights continue to
be relevant today.
The first written maritime codes that appeared in the eleventh to thirteenth centuries
provided remarkable protections for ship’s crews, even by current standards.
These codes followed commercial practices that were established in Mediterranean
shipping in the pre-Christian era. For example, the ancient codes’ provisions for
seafarers’ medical care are still better than modern land workers’ medical care
rights. The codes guaranteed that ship’s crews would be repatriated to their home
at the end of their voyage. The codes also required that ship’s crews be provided
decent sustenance (by the standards of the day).
The seventeenth- and eighteenth-century era of European exploration and colonization
caused a profound change in seafarers’ rights. European exploration
and colonization required a large number of many sailing ships with large crews.
Sailing ships of that era needed many more seafarers than were willing to go to
sea. Jails were emptied, drunks were abducted, and many other deceptive methods
were used to ‘recruit’ seafarers. The merchant ship crews in that era were tough, unruly,
and unwilling workers. Shipowners and ships’ officers resorted to extremely
oppressive measures to maintain control over their crews. The seventeenth- and
eighteenth-century maritime commerce expansion coincided with the rise in
national legislative statute-making. The maritime statutes that were passed at that
time were legislated mostly by maritime nations whose national interests focused
on expanding trade. Therefore, the statutes tended to protect commercial shipping
interests, one of which was controlling unruly seafarers involuntarily pressed into
service on merchant sailing vessels.
Unlike the general maritime law protections that provided universal protections,
the seafarers’ rights that emerged from nineteenth-century reforms were
country-specific. A patchwork of national statutes had largely replaced the general
maritime law traditionally followed throughout the maritime world. The general
maritime law did, however serve as a source for maritime nations’ statutes, and it
is still recognized by national courts on maritime law issues not covered by statute.
By the beginning of the twentieth century, workers’ unrest about labour conditions
grew in industrialized countries, and trade unions gained increasing influence.
Their demands for social justice and higher living standards for workers were
heard at the end of the First World War, where the participants in the Paris Peace
Conference recognized workers’ significant contributions to the war efforts, both
on the battlefield and in industry. In 1919, the Treaty of Versailles created the
International Labour Organization (ILO). The principal reason for creating the
ILO was humanitarian: international standards were needed to improve labour
conditions. Political and economic reasons also inspired the creation of the
ILO: without improvements in working conditions, social unrest was inevitable,
but without international standards, countries initiating social reforms would be at
a competitive disadvantage with those that did not. Among the first international
labour standards developed by the ILO were maritime standards. Since its founding,
the ILO has given special attention to seafarers’ working conditions.
Seafarers’ rights law developed out of the practical necessities of those engaged in
maritime commerce. The law that was eventually codified merely reflected customs
and practices that the industry developed to transport cargo by sea as efficiently
and predictably as possible. In later years, the law strayed from promoting
efficient and practical commercial interests by attempting to accommodate the
differing interests of coastal States, flag States, exploiting the ocean’s resources, and
maintaining freedoms of navigation. The result is that maritime law has become
In 2006, the ILO adopted the Maritime Labour Convention, 2006 (MLC 2006).
The MLC 2006 is the most significant development in the long history of seafarers’
rights law. It provides in one convention a comprehensive statement of seafarers’
rights that reflect both the rights that have withstood the test of time as well
as modern shipping realities. The MLC 2006 includes standards for conditions
of employment, hours of work and rest, accommodation, recreational facilities,
food and catering, health protection, medical care, welfare and social security
protection for seafarers, regulating recruitment and placement services, and flag
and port State inspection systems. For the first time in any ILO Convention, the
MLC 2006 includes seafarers’ rights to shore leave. The Convention is easy to
understand, is capable of ratification, and it is enforceable. The most important
aspect of the Convention is its underlying principle of respecting and honouring
The MLC 2006 sets international standards for seafarers’ working and living conditions
that are enforced by countries that have ratified it. The Convention consolidates
more than sixty-five international labour conventions and recommendations
that had been adopted by the ILO since 1920.
MLC 2006 came into force in August 2013. The MLC’s standards are enforced
on ratifying nations’ ships and on foreign ships, irrespective of whether their flag
State has ratified the Convention, calling at ratifying nations’ ports. The MLC
2006 encourages nations to ratify the Convention by allowing them to implement
it through laws, regulations, or other measures that are substantially equivalent to