Seafarers’ Wages Bill: Are Good Intentions Enough?

In March 2022 P&O Ferries made 786 seafarers redundant, without prior notice or consultation. The company also announced its decision to move to a new crewing model using agency workers who would be paid less than the NMW. In doing so, P&O Ferries openly took advantage of gaps in national and international legislation governing seafarers’ wages.

In the UK, for example, the NMW, which was first introduced by the NMW Act 1998, applies to anyone employed to work on board a ship registered in the UK, unless the employment is wholly outside the UK, or the person is not ordinarily resident in the UK.[1] The right to be paid the NMW also applies to all individuals working in the territorial waters of the UK or in the UK sector of the continental shelf, provided they were not employed in connection with a ship which is exercising the right of innocent passage or the right of transit passage, as defined by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), or a ship which is engaged in dredging or fishing.[2]

What this effectively means is that seafarers working on board vessels serving domestic UK routes have a right to be paid the NMW, regardless of the flag of their vessel and even if they are not ordinarily resident in the UK. However, the NMW still does not apply to seafarers working on board ships serving international routes unless their ship is flagged in the UK, and they are ordinarily resident in the UK.

At an international level, on the other hand, the Maritime Labour Convention, 2006, although it includes a series of provisions regarding the seafarers’ right to be paid for their services,[3] it does not make any binding provisions regarding the right to be paid minimum wages. In fact, the MLC is limited to set guidance as to the procedures for determining minimum wages for seafarers and the minimum monthly basic rate of pay for able seafarers working on ships operating worldwide.[4]

In response to the P&O Ferries redundancies, the UK government announced, amongst other things, its intention to change the law so that seafarers working on ships that regularly use UK ports are paid at least equivalent to the UK NMW. Following a consultation from 10 May to 7 June 2022,[5] the UK government introduced the Seafarers’ Wages Bill to the House of Lords on 6 July 2022. The Bill, which had its first reading in the House of Commons on 8 November 2022, aims to ensure that seafarers with close ties to the UK are paid at least an equivalent to the UK NMW while they are in UK waters, and contains 15 provisions.

Cl. 1 to 2 set out the scope of application. Cl. 3 to 6 establish the obligation of ship operators to make NMW equivalence declarations to harbour authorities. Cl. 7 to 9 set out the powers of harbour authorities to impose surcharges and access restrictions where ship operators have not provided a valid NMW equivalence declaration. Cl. 10 sets out the power of the Secretary of State to institute proceedings relating to offences under this Bill. Cl. 11 to 12 deal with the powers of the Secretary of State to issue guidance, directions, and regulations. Cl. 13 and 14 define terms used in the Bill, including the terms harbour and harbour authorities. Cl. 15 deals with the extent and the commencement of the provisions of the Bill.

In essence, if the Bill passes it will create a system by virtue of which harbour authorities will have the power to request ship operators, the vessels of whom use their harbours at least 120 times a year, to provide a declaration that their seafarers are paid at a rate at least equivalent to the NMW for their work in the UK or its territorial waters if they do not already qualify for the NMW.[6] In addition, harbour authorities will be able to impose a surcharge on ship operators who fail to provide a valid NMW equivalence declaration.[7] The amount of the surcharge is to be determined by a tariff of surcharges specified by harbour authorities in accordance with regulations issued by the Secretary of State.[8] A surcharge paid by ship operators may be retained and used by harbour authorities for the purposes of any of their functions or for the creation of shore-based welfare facilities for seafarers.[9] Finally, subject to very few exceptions, harbour authorities will be entitled to refuse access to their harbours if ship operators fail to pay the surcharge.[10]

Apart from the powers vested on harbour authorities, the Bill will also create a dedicated enforcement system, allowing the Maritime and Coastguard Agency to play a role in checking the validity of NMW equivalence declarations.[11] The inspectors will have powers to board a ship in a harbour in the UK or to enter any premises for the purposes of determining whether ship operators comply with any NMW equivalence declarations, or of verifying information provided to ensure compliance with these declarations.[12]

So far, the Bill has been received with scepticism. The UK Chamber of Shipping, for example, commented that the Bill could potentially undermine existing international agreements.[13] Similarly, the British Ports Association raised concerns about the compatibility of the Bill with international treaties, as well as the suitability of ports to regulate the wages of port-users.[14] Nautilus, on the other hand, pointed out that the Bill could potentially lead to ship operators ‘port hopping’ to avoid having to pay seafarers the equivalent of the NMW.[15]

Despite its good intentions, the potential impact of the Bill on underpaid seafarers working on board ships serving international routes could be minimal. First, as it was commented by Nautilus, the requirement that a ship must enter a harbour at least 120 occasions in the year for the NMW equivalence declaration to apply means that unscrupulous ship operators can easily bypass regulation by shifting their services between different ports. As the Bill appears, this is an unavoidable risk. It is the author’s view that this risk could only be avoided by a more centralised regulatory approach which would not depend entirely on casting powers on individual harbour authorities. Secondly, the fact that ship operators who fail to provide a valid NMW equivalence declaration will still be able to use a harbour if they pay a surcharge undermines the whole purpose of the Bill. This is because ship operators with significant financial means will be able to buy themselves out of regulation. After all, this is exactly what P&O Ferries did when they dismissed 786 seafarers without prior notice or consultation. Finally, adding yet another issue on the agenda of port inspectors without conducting structural changes on the way port inspections are carried out can only be of minimal practical significance when it comes to the protection of the seafarers’ employment rights.


[1] NMW Act 1998, s 40.

[2] NMW (Offshore Employment) (Amendment) Order 2020, s 2.

[3] MLC, Regulation 2.2. See also MLC, Standard A2.2.

[4] MLC, Guidelines B2.2.3 and B2.2.4.

[5] Department for Transport, Consultation outcome: Conditions for harbour access and seafarers’ pay-rates: scope and compliance, 10 May 2022 < https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/1088162/seafarers-wages-consultation-gov-response.pdf> accessed 7 December 2022.

[6] Bill 184 2022-23, cl 3.

[7] Bill 184 2022-23, cl 7.

[8] ibid.

[9] ibid.

[10] Bill 184 2022-23, cl 9.

[11] Bill 184 2022-23, cl 6.

[12] ibid.

[13] UK Chamber of Shipping, ‘Seafarers’ Wages Bill’ (6 July 2022) <https://ukchamberofshipping.com/latest/seafarers-wages-bill-/> accessed 7 December 2022.

[14] British Ports Association, ‘ BPA Reacts to New Harbours (Seafarers’ Remuneration) Bill’ (10 May 2022) <https://www.britishports.org.uk/bpa-reacts-to-new-harbours-seafarers-remuneration-bill/> accessed 7 December 2022.

[15] Nautilus, ‘First reading of Seafarers’ Wages Bill’ (7 September 2022) < https://www.nautilusint.org/en/news-insight/news/first-reading-of-seafarers-wages-bill/> accessed 7 December 2022.

The ILO adopts a Resolution on Financial Security in cases of the Abandonment of Seafarers 

In one of our previous posts ( https://iistl.blog/2022/04/13/financial-security-in-cases-of-abandonment-a-four-month-limit-for-unpaid-seafarers-wages%ef%bf%bc/ ), we considered some of the issues that emerge from the operation of Standard A2.5.2 of the Maritime Labour Convention (MLC), 2006, as amended, on financial security in cases of the abandonment of seafarers. In particular, we looked at paragraph 9 of this Standard which requires that the coverage provided by the financial security system when seafarers are abandoned by shipowners shall be limited to four months of any such outstanding wages and four months of any such outstanding entitlements. In this regard, we highlighted, inter alia, the inadequacy of the fourth month limit to accommodate the needs of seafarers when a case of abandonment is not resolved in time.  

Only a few months ago, during the second part of the fourth meeting of the Special Tripartite Committee, the possibility of extending the minimum coverage afforded by the current financial security system from four months to eight months was considered following a proposal from the seafarers’ group of representatives. While the proposal was not supported by the representatives of the shipowners’ group and the representatives of the Governments’ group, mainly because of the risks faced by the insurers, a joint resolution was adopted. The latter called for the establishment of a working group under the auspice of the Special Tripartite Committee to discuss the financial security system required under Standard A2.5.2 of the MLC, 2006, as amended, with a view to making recommendations on potential improvements that would make the system more effective and sustainable, as well as ensure a greater degree of protection and assistance for abandoned seafarers.  

Financial Security in Cases of Abandonment: A Four-Month Limit for Unpaid Seafarers’ Wages?

Introduction

The International Labour Conference (ILC) at its 103rd session approved the first group of amendments to the Maritime Labour Convention (MLC), 2006. The amendments were agreed by the Special Tripartite Committee at its first meeting at the International Labour Organisation (ILO) in Geneva in April 2014 and entered into force in January 2017. The amendments concerned Regulations 2.5 and 4.2 which deal with the right to repatriation and the shipowners’ liability for sickness, injury or death of seafarers occurring in connection with their employment. In brief, the amendments inter alia set out requirements for shipowners to provide financial security to provide support for abandoned seafarers and to assure compensation in the event of death or long-term disability of seafarers due to occupational injury, illness or hazard. While an exhaustive overview of such amendments is beyond the scope of this blogpost, this blogpost aims to shed light into the operation of Standard A 2.5.2. of the MLC, 2006, as amended, paragraph 9 of which stipulates that the coverage provided by the financial security system when seafarers are abandoned by shipowners shall be limited to four months outstanding wages and four months of outstanding entitlements.

Issues

Let’s take a hypothetical case of seafarers being abandoned for 10 months. Seafarers contact the P&I Club for assistance, providing all the necessary documentation to substantiate their claim. The P&I Club’s claims handlers acknowledge receipt of the claim, check the validity of the financial security system, and investigate whether the shipowners have in fact failed to pay wages to seafarers. If the P&I is satisfied that the financial security system is valid and that the seafarers’ wages are outstanding, the P&I Club will pay four months of outstanding wages and take immediate action to repatriate the affected seafarers. Now, assuming that all the outstanding wages are of the same rate, no further questions arise. But what if the outstanding wages are not all of the same rate? If, for example, after the first four months, there has been a pay rise under the seafarers’ employment agreement.

In such cases, a further question can potentially arise as to how the limit of four months outstanding wages will be calculated. Should it be calculated based on the first four outstanding wages? Or is there a right to pick and choose which of such outstanding wages to form the basis for the calculation of such limit? If the latter is true, seafarers will be keen on calculating such limit based on the higher rate of such outstanding wages. On the other hand, the P&I Club will attempt to calculate such limit based on the lower rate of such outstanding wages. In the next section, this blogpost will explain what the relevant provisions of the MLC, 2006, as amended, provide.

The law

The relevant provision is Standard A 2.5.2 of the MLC, 2006, as amended. Paragraph 9 of this Standard states that:

‘Having regard to Regulations 2.2 and 2.5, assistance provided by the financial security system shall be sufficient to cover the following: (a) outstanding wages and other entitlements due from the shipowner to the seafarer under their employment agreement, the relevant collective bargaining agreement or the national law of the flag State, limited to four months of any such outstanding wages and four months of any such outstanding entitlements; […].’

If one looks at the wording of this provision, it can easily be ascertained that the actual text of the Convention does not give an answer to this question. Certainly, the use of the words ‘limited to four months of any such outstanding wages and four months of any such outstanding entitlements’ gives ample of space for arguments suggesting that the four months limit can be calculated by reference to any such outstanding wages, and not necessarily the first four outstanding wages.

However, it is not clear whether the specific wording was used with such flexibility in mind. The draft text of the amendments of Standard A 2.5.2. of the MLC, 2006, was based on the principles agreed at the Ninth Session (2-6 May 2009) of the Joint IMO/ILO Working Group on Liability and Compensation regarding Claims for Death, Personal Injury and Abandonment of Seafarers. During the negotiations, it was considered whether links should be drawn between paragraphs 2 and 9 of this Standard. Although this discussion took place in respect of the duration of the limitation period (it may be worth noting here that, initially, a limit of three months wages was suggested), it can still be instructive. In this respect, it was explained that the purpose of paragraph 2 is to identify when abandonment takes place, whereas paragraph 9 defines the scope of financial security to be provided in case of abandonment. Thus, it was concluded, it is necessary to allow for a time lapse between the recognition of the abandonment situation and the limitation of financial security.

Against this backdrop, it can be argued that the purpose of the said limit is to ensure that seafarers’ wages are fully paid up for the first four months since their abandonment. Bearing in mind that it is the seafarers who have to initiate the process with the P&I Clubs, it may also be worth noting here that such interpretation can assist with avoiding cases, although rare, where seafarers intentionally allow wages to continue to accrue.

Conclusion

In practice, it is highly unlikely that seafarers are owed only four months’ wages when they are abandoned by their shipowners. Thus, the possibility of different rates for wages or other entitlements cannot be precluded. Given the uncertainty of the wording of Standard A 2.5.2. paragraph 9 (a) of the MLC, 2006, amended, any conflicting arguments can easily be avoided if the purpose of this provision is clarified in future amendments.

UK bans Russian ships from entry to UK ports

As part of the UK’s sanctions against Russia following its invasion of Ukraine, Regulations 57 a-i of The Russia (Sanctions) (EU Exit) (Amendment) (No. 4) Regulations 2022 (SI 2022/203) took effect on 1 March 2022. These ban the entry into UK ports of

(a)a ship owned, controlled, chartered or operated by a designated person,

(b)a ship owned, controlled, chartered or operated by persons connected with Russia,

(c)a ship registered in Russia,

(d)a ship flying the flag of Russia, or

(e)a specified ship.

A ship is ‘controlled’ by “a person who is able to take decisions about its operation, including (but not limited to) decisions about the route the ship may take and the appointment of master or crew.

The Secretary of State may direct the UK Ship Registrar to terminate the registration of such ships and to direct harbour authorities to detain Russian ships at ports or anchorages.

The Secretary of State may also specify a ship for the purposes of the entry prohibitions provided the Secretary of State—

(a) has reasonable grounds to suspect that the ship is, has been, or is likely to be, involved in a relevant activity, and

(b) considers that it is appropriate for that ship to be specified, having regard to the purposes stated in regulation 4.

A ship is “involved in a relevant activity” if the ship is used for any activity whose object or effect is to contravene or circumvent, or to enable or facilitate the contravention or circumvention of, any provision of these Regulations.

The prohibition on entry does not, as yet, apply to Russian cargo although there have been incidents where dockers in the UK have refused to unload such cargo.

Canada also closed its port to Russian ships on 1 March. The European Commission has also proposed banning Russian ships from docking at European ports but there is currently opposition to this.

The Wall Street Journal has reported that an estimated 60,000 Russian and Ukrainian sailors are stuck at ports, with Russia providing over 10% of the global workforce for shipping.

Russia’s prime minister, Mikhail Mishustin, has said that nations that ban Russian ships from their ports could face retaliation.

Are there further risks for seafarers on the back of the amendments proposed by the UK government to the new Nationality and Borders Bill?

It is argued that, despite the recent amendments, the new Nationality and Borders Bill still raises concerns for seafarers who comply with their legal duty to save life at sea.

Introduction

Since its introduction to the House of Commons on 6 July 2021, the new Nationality and Borders Bill has attracted a lot of attention and has received fierce criticism for the changes it brings to the UK’s immigration and asylum system. What has not been widely known, however, is that the new bill will also change the provisions of the Immigration Act 1971 in relation to people smuggling offences in a way that can potentially criminalise seafarers who save the life of someone in distress at sea. With an amendment which aims to protect seafarers from any unfair prosecution being tabled by the UK government, not least thanks to the efforts of, and lobbying from, industry stakeholders, this blogpost attempts to explain why the new Nationality and Borders Bill matters for seafarers, what changes are proposed to the existing legislation, and what risks remain for seafarers.

Why does the new Nationality & Borders Bill matter for seafarers?

In the past few years, the world has witnessed an unprecedented humanitarian crisis. Millions of people are forced to leave their home countries in order to escape war, famine and poverty and many of them have no other option but to risk their lives, and cross some of the world’s busiest shipping lanes in small dinghies in their search for safety. It is within this context that, on various occasions, seafarers had to assist with rescues at sea. What is important to note, however, is that seafarers do not conduct these rescue operations only out of a moral obligation. There is a legal obligation to do so. Under Article 98 of the United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea, 1982, the master and crew of a commercial ship have a duty to rescue people in distress at sea, and to bring them in a place of safety. Similar provisions are found in Chapter V of the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea, 1974, as well as in the International Convention for Salvage, 1989, Article 10 of which provides that ‘every master is bound, so far as he can do so without serious danger to his vessel and persons thereon, to render assistance to any person in danger of being lost at sea’ and that ‘State parties shall adopt the measures to enforce the duty set out in paragraph 1’. In fact, the UK has adopted relevant provisions, establishing that a master shall be liable of a criminal offence if he/she fails to comply with his/her duty to render assistance to persons in danger at sea and that the maximum available sentence would be two-year imprisonment or a fine, or both.[1] In effect, this means that any new provision that could make seafarers criminally liable for saving people in danger at sea would criminalise seafarers for doing what they are required to do by law!

Given that the English Channel is tuning into a popular crossing point for those who search for a better future,[2] and since its inherent dangers, the issues raised by the upcoming changes of the current legislation are not just of theoretical interest.

What did the Immigration Act 1971 provide?

Section 25A, paragraph 1 of the Immigration Act 1971, which represents the current law, provides that a person, who knowingly and for gain facilitates the arrival or attempted arrival in, or the entry or attempted entry into, the UK of an individual, and he/she knows or has reasonable cause to believe that the individual is an asylum-seeker,[3] commits a criminal offence. This could lead to a maximum sentence of 14-year imprisonment, to a fine or to both.[4] However, with the greater focus on the requirement for gain, seafarers assisting with rescues at sea according to their international maritime law obligations are well protected from the risk of being unfairly prosecuted. Unfortunately, it is argued, the latter will not be guaranteed if/when the proposed Bill is passed.

What is the Nationality & Borders Bill’s new provision for the offence of assisting asylum-seekers to enter the UK?

The Nationality & Borders Bill,[5] as introduced on 6 July 2021, proposed, pursuant to clause 38, two significant amendments in relation to the offence of facilitating the arrival in, or entry into, the UK of asylum-seekers under section 25A of the Immigration Act 1971. The first relates to the maximum potential sentence, an increase of which has been proposed from a 14-year prison sentence to life imprisonment. The second, and arguably the most important one, relates to the removal of the current requirement ‘for gain’ in order to commit such offence. This implied that a blanket criminal offence would be created, with no defences available, which could expose those seafarers who comply with their international maritime law obligation to save life at sea into criminal liability.

As a result, it was not surprising that the proposed amendments were not received well by social partners and organisations representing seafarers and the shipping industry, in general. In fact, Nautilus International and the UK Chamber of Shipping issued a joint letter to the UK government over the new Nationality and Borders Bill, in which they raised their concerns about the potential implications of the proposed bill in the long lasting problem of criminalisation of seafarers and requested the maritime minister and the shadow secretaries of transport and maritime to raise those concerns with the Home Secretary to ensure that sufficient assurances will be given that seafarers would not be liable for prosecution for complying with international maritime law.[6] In response to this letter, the Home Office Minister at the time Chris Phillip clarified that the new Nationality and Borders Bill would not target seafarers.[7] Although this response was reassuring, it was not found to be satisfactory, as it left the matter to be dealt with through policy guidance.[8] Thus, Nautilus International and the UK Chamber of Shipping issued a second letter, urging for those reassurances, namely that seafarers of commercial ships would not be  criminalised for rescuing distressed persons at sea and bringing them ashore in the United Kingdom, to be codified in legislation.[9]

After strong lobbying from Nautilus International and the UK Chamber of Shipping, in January 2022, the UK government finally confirmed that it has tabled an amendment to the new Nationality and Borders Bill which ensures that seafarers who are required by law to rescue people at sea will be adequately protected from criminal prosecution.[10] Indeed, the latest reprint of the new bill,[11] in clause 40, paragraph 4, introduces a defence for the offence of assisting asylum seekers to arrive in, or to enter into, the UK under section 25A of the Immigration Act 1971 that could be used by seafarers in those circumstances.[12] This defence is to be included as section 25BA in the Immigration Act 1971. Briefly, it provides that a person charged with this offence would not be liable if it is established that:

‘(a) the assisted individual had been in danger or distress at sea, and

 (b) the act of facilitation was an act of providing assistance to the individual at any time between –

  • the time when the assisted individual was first in danger or distress at sea, and
  • the time when the assisted individual was delivered to a place of safety on land.’[13]

From an evidentiary perspective, the defence will succeed, if the person charged with the offence adduces sufficient evidence of the relevant facts, and the contrary is not proved beyond reasonable doubt.[14] Finally, it should be mentioned that the defence will not be available in two circumstances, where the UK was not the nearest place of safety on land, and there was no good reason to deliver the assisted individual in the UK instead of to a nearer place of safety on land, and where the person charged with the offence was on the same ship as the assisted individual at the time when the individual was first in danger or distress at sea.[15] Thus, against this backdrop, a question remains as to whether the amendments proposed to the new Nationality and Borders Bill by the UK government award seafarers who rescue those in distress at sea with adequate protection.

What is the risk for seafarers?

Most certainly, the fact that the new Nationality and Borders Bill has been amended to include a defence for the offence of facilitating the arrival in, or entry into, the UK of asylum-seekers is a big success for seafarers and the shipping industry. However, some risks remain. For example, there is a question as to what would be considered as ‘sufficient’ evidence for the purposes of this defence. Furthermore, one should not overlook or underestimate the difficulties faced by seafarers when they are required to provide evidence in the context of criminal investigations in a foreign port.[16] Finally, it is unclear what the position of those seafarers involved in criminal investigations for rescuing people at sea would be. [17]

Under the shadow of these risks, seafarers may still find themselves in front of a dilemma as to whether to rescue those who are in danger at sea, and risk finding themselves caught in the middle of a criminal investigation process, or whether to disregard their responsibilities under international maritime law to save life at sea, with whatever repercussions this might have in the existing humanitarian crisis, and ‘save’ themselves from the risk of being unfairly treated. In order to avoid this, it is argued, further clarity and certainty is required. This can be achieved through policy guidance. Alternatively, the possibility of developing a code of practice to be followed by seafarers when attempting rescues at sea can be considered.

What happens next?

Having been passed by MPs in the House of Commons in December, the Bill is now being debated by the House of Lords and is due to go to committee stage on 27 January 2022, where a detailed line by line examination of the separate parts of the Bill will take place. During the committee stage, all suggested amendments will also have to be considered and votes on any amendments can take place before every clause of the Bill will be agreed to. At the end of the committee stage, the Bill will be reprinted with all the agreed amendments, and it will then move to report stage for further scrutiny.

Concluding remarks

It is beyond doubt that what Nautilus International and the UK Chamber of Shipping achieved was a big win for seafarers which highlighted how important is the role of industry stakeholders in forming public policy. However, there are still things that can be done to ensure that the ‘faith’ of seafarers, who comply with their legal obligations and save people at sea, will be more predictable if/when the new Nationality and Borders Bill is passed.


[1] Section 3, Part II, Schedule 11 of the Merchant Shipping Act 1995.

[2] It is estimated that, in 2021, more than 21,000 people crossed the English Channel, while the number of people crossing in 2020 was more than 40,000.

[3] Section 25A, paragraph 2 of the Immigration Act 1971 explains that, for the purposes of this section, ‘“asylum-seeker” means a person who intends to claim that to remove him from or require him to leave the United Kingdom would be contrary to the United Kingdom’s obligations under (a) the Refugee Convention (within the meaning given by section 167(1) of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 (c 33) (interpretation)), or (b) the Human Rights Convention (within the meaning given by that section).

[4] Section 25A, paragraph 4, read in conjunction with Section 25, paragraph 5 of the Immigration Act 1971.

[5] Bill 141 2021-22.

[6] ‘Nautilus and UKCS question migrant Bill that could criminalise seafarers’ (20 July 2021) available at < https://www.nautilusint.org/en/news-insight/news/nautilus-and-ukcs-question-migrant-bill-that-could-criminalise-seafarers2/> accessed 12 January 2022.

[7] ‘Union urges Nationality and Borders Bill legislative clarity’ (12 August 2021) available at <https://www.nautilusint.org/en/news-insight/news/nationality-and-borders-bill-clarity/ > accessed 12 January 2022.

[8] ibid.

[9] ibid.

[10] ‘UK Chamber of Shipping and Nautilus welcome government amendment on Nationality and Borders Bill’ (6 January 2022) available at < https://ukchamberofshipping.com/latest/uk-chamber-shipping-and-nautilus-welcome-government-amendment-nationality-borders-bill/ > accessed 12 January 2022.

[11] HL Bill 82.

[12] It may be worth noting that this defence will also be available for the offence of assisting unlawful immigration under section 25 of the Immigration Act 1971. 

[13] Clause 40, paragraph 4 of the Nationality and Borders Bill (HL Bill 82).

[14] ibid.

[15] ibid.

[16] Research has shown that the fear of criminalisation is one of the most important factors that drives seafarers away from working at sea. See, for example, Report for discussion at the Sectoral Meeting on the Recruitment and Retention of Seafarers and the Promotion of Opportunities for Women Seafarers (Geneva, 25 February–1 March 2019), International Labour Office, Sectoral Policies Department, Geneva, ILO, 2019.

[17] There is also a question as to what the position of the ship would be for as long as the investigations last.

Maritime Labour Convention and Electronic Certificates: The Way Forward?

It is often said that a period of crisis brings in the light opportunities for development, and this cannot be less true of the COVID-19 pandemic. Indeed, this on-going pandemic, together with the control measures adopted by many countries, are highlighting the need for a shift towards digitalisation. In the context of the Maritime Labour Convention (MLC), 2006, in particular, the crisis created by the COVID-19 pandemic not only interrupted, in some instances, for a significant period of time, the conduct of inspections required in accordance with Title 5 of the Convention, but also challenged the traditional ways of carrying out such inspections. It came, thus, as no surprise that a number of countries, influenced by the benefits and the practicality of having on board electronic certificates, specifically authorised their use during this pandemic to facilitate port State control inspections, with a view to ensuring that safety standards and decent working and living conditions on board ships are maintained.[1] But, how ready was the regulatory framework for such a change?

At an international level, discussion of issues relating to electronic certificates in the context of the MLC, 2006, had started at the third meeting of the Special Tripartite Committee in April 2018, only two years before the beginning of this pandemic, without taking any decisions on this matter. During this meeting, the Vice-Chairperson of the Shipowner group, the Vice–Chairperson of the Seafarer group and the Chairperson of the Government group recognised the benefits of the use of electronic documents in relation to the Maritime Labour Certificate or the Declaration of Maritime Labour Compliance, which could facilitate the maintenance and withdrawal of documents and expedite inspections by port State control officers.[2] However, one issue was whether the text of the MLC, 2006, would permit the use of such electronic certificates.[3] Furthermore, concerns were raised as to whether the various port State control authorities would accept those electronic certificates.[4] Finally, there was uncertainty as to how such electronic documents could be displayed on board ships to conform with the requirements of the Convention.[5] The possibility of using electronic certificates in relation to other documents, such as crew lists, seafarers’ employment agreements or information on crew members had also been addressed. In this respect, both the Vice-Chairperson of the Shipowner group and the Vice–Chairperson of the Seafarer group highlighted the difficulties surrounding the protection of the personal data of seafarers and noted the need to ensure compliance with the EU General Data Protection Regulation.[6]

The Special Tripartite Committee returned to some of those issues during the first part of its fourth meeting in April 2021 where it was explained that the provisions of the MLC, 2006, as currently drafted, would not prevent national administrations from authorising the creation and storage of seafarers’ employment agreements in electronic format, the maintenance of electronic records on board ships and the use of such records for inspection purposes as well as the issuance of electronic Maritime Labour Certificates and Declarations of Maritime Labour Compliance.[7] However, print outs of such electronic documents should be carried on board ships and should remain available to seafarers in accordance with Standard A5.1.3 of the MLC, 2006, paragraph 12 of which explicitly states that ‘a current valid maritime labour certificate and declaration of maritime labour compliance, accompanied by an English-language translation where it is not in English, shall be carried on the ship and a copy shall be posted in a conspicuous place on board where it is available to the seafarers’.[8] It was further stressed that the use of electronic seafarers’ employment agreements should not affect the obligations under Standard A2.1 of the MLC, 2006.[9] Amongst other things, those obligations provide that seafarers working on board ships shall have a seafarers’ employment agreement signed by both the seafarer and the shipowner or a representative of the shipowner, that seafarers shall be given an opportunity to examine and seek advice on the agreement before signing, that the shipowner and the seafarer shall each have a signed original of the seafarers’ employment agreement, and that clear information as to the conditions of employment shall be easily obtained on board by seafarers and shall also be accessible for review by inspectors. The question of whether electronic signatures should be acceptable in the context of the seafarers’ employment agreement is a matter of general contract law that is left by the Convention to be determined by the national law of the flag State or any other law applicable to the seafarers’ employment agreement.[10] Finally, it was observed that the use of electronic certificates should not undermine the obligations of State parties to the MLC, 2006, or shipowners with regards to ship certification and should not make more difficult the process of issuing, accessing or using ship certificates by the individuals concerned.[11]

At a national level, Denmark was the first country to use electronic certificates for seafarers. Its pilot project of digital certificates for seafarers started in June 2016. The aim of this project was to show how digital certificates could operate on board ships, for companies and authorities.[12] The project was based on three pillars. First, seafarers would use a mobile application to sign-on, enabling data sharing; then the master would access the digital certificates of the crew, which would facilitate the management of the crew, the automatic validation of compliance with minimum safe manning requirements, and the transfer of the details to authorities prior to arriving in the next port; and, finally, port authorities would access the digital certificates of the crew, in order to verify compliance with minimum safe manning requirements.[13] Before the launch of this project, the Danish Maritime Authority sent information to the IMO explaining that the certificates would be in compliance with international conventions and instruments, including the Convention on Facilitation of International Maritime Traffic (FAL Convention) and the IMO Facilitation Committee (FAL) Guidelines for the use of electronic certificates (FAL.5/Circ.39/Rev.2 and Corr. 1), as they would carry an electronic coat of arms, the stamp of the Danish Maritime Authority, a signature of an authorised inspector as well as a unique tracking identification number.[14] The certificates would also be protected from alteration or tampering through encryption and use of a digital signature.[15]

Since 2016, other flag States have also started to adopt regulations in relation to the use of electronic certificates, in compliance with the IMO Guidelines for the use of electronic certificates (FAL.5/Circ.39/Rev.2). Such countries include Antigua and Barbuda,[16] Bahamas,[17] Belgium,[18] Cyprus,[19] India,[20] Kiribati,[21] Liberia,[22] Malta,[23] Marshall Islands,[24] Myanmar,[25] Norway,[26] Singapore,[27] Palau,[28] Panama,[29] Sri Lanka,[30] and the UK.[31] However, it may be worth mentioning that only very few countries have made explicit provisions for the issuance of MLC, 2006, documents in electronic format. For example, the Marshall Islands provided that, as from February 2020, the Maritime Administrator would issue the Declaration of Maritime Labour Compliance Part I in electronic format only.[32]

This hesitation on the part of flag States must be associated with the fear of port State control authorities denying the validity of electronic certificates and the possibility of port State authorities unduly detaining or delaying vessels carrying such certificates. Clearly, the latter can be particularly onerous for seafarers, shipowners and other stakeholders. In this respect, the guidelines for port State control officers carrying out inspections under the MLC, 2006, which were published by the ILO in 2008, does not provide any guidance.[33] In fact, those guidelines provide that port State control inspectors should use their professional judgment in carrying out all duties.[34] Furthermore, the guidelines prescribe that the Maritime Labour Certificates and Declaration of Maritime Labour Compliance should be the starting point in the inspection process as they constitute prima facie evidence that the ship is in compliance with the requirements of the MLC, 2006,[35] and that an inspection may end after a satisfactory document review.[36] Noting the importance of the Maritime Labour Certificates and Declaration of Maritime Labour Compliance in the process of port State control inspections under the MLC, 2006, it can, thus, be argued that an update of this guidance is necessary to set out some uniform standards for the issue, acceptance, and use of such certificates.

Beyond the MLC, 2006, context, in June 2017, the Paris MoU issued a set of guidelines for the use of electronic certificates.[37] In particular, section 3, read in conjunction with section 2.2, explain that port State control inspectors should accept electronic certificates provided that: they are consistent with the format and content required by the relevant international convention or instrument, as applicable; they are protected from edits, modifications or revisions other than those authorised by the issuer or the administration; they contain a unique tracking number used for verification; and they contain a printable and visible symbol that confirms the source of issuance. However, those guidelines were only drafted for the purpose of providing guidance to port State control inspectors in performing a port State control inspection, and third parties could not claim any rights on that basis.[38]

More recently, the IMO adopted the procedures for port State control, 2019. What is particularly interesting, though, it is that section 1.2.3 provides that if a port State exercises control based on the MLC, 2006, guidance on the conduct of such inspections is given in the ILO publication “Guidelines for port State control officers carrying out inspections under the MLC, 2206”. It is, thus, unclear whether these procedures should apply to such port State control inspections or not. In that respect, it is submitted that a combined reading should be preferred. In any case, this guidance adopts a positive approach towards the use of electronic certificates that aims to afford consistency in the conduct of port State control inspections. More specifically, section 2.2.3 of the IMO procedures for port State control, 2019, explains that certificates may be in hard copy or electronic format.[39] Where the ship relies upon electronic certificates, the certificates and website used to access them should conform with the IMO Facilitation Committee (FAL) Guidelines for the use of electronic certificates (FAL.5/Circ.39/Rev.2 and Corr. 1), specific verification instructions should be available on the ship, and viewing such certificates on a computer should be considered as meeting the requirement of carrying certificates on board.[40] Of course, this guidance is only recommendatory in nature. Governments are only encouraged to implement these procedures when exercising port State control. This implies that port States can still adopt different requirements in relation to the validity of electronic certificates. In practice, this could mean that a ship calling at various ports in the course of a single voyage would have to carry both a hard copy and an electronic version of a certificate to comply with the requirements of different port States. There is no doubt that this could disincentivise flag States and companies from investing on acquiring the necessary knowledge and technology for issuing, accessing or using electronic certificates. On a final note, it should not be overlooked that this lack of uniform standards at the international level could lead to the emergence of more ports of convenience.

As we move forward and out of this pandemic, the use of electronic certificates in the context of the MLC, 2006, is likely to be expanded or even generalised. However, for that to be a viable possibility for the future, international cooperation is necessary for the creation of uniform standards for the issuance, acceptance and use of such certificates.


[1] For example, Belgium (Circular 2020/002).

[2] Final report: Third meeting of the Special Tripartite Committee of the Maritime Labour Convention, 2006, as amended (MLC, 2006) (Geneva, 23-27 April 2018), International Labour Office, International Labour Standards Department, Geneva, ILO, 2018, at page 15.

[3] ibid.

[4] ibid.

[5] ibid.

[6] ibid.

[7] Background paper for discussion, Fourth meeting of the Special Tripartite Committee established under Article XII of the Maritime Labour Convention, 2006, as amended – Part I (Geneva, 19-23 April 2021), International Labour Office, International Labour Standards Department, Sectoral Policies Department, Geneva, ILO, 2021, at page 24.

[8] ibid at page 25.

[9] ibid.

[10] ibid.

[11] ibid.

[12] Danish Maritime Authority, “Digital Certificates for Seafarers” available at < https://www.dma.dk/SoefarendeBemanding/SoefartsbogBeviser/DigitaleBeviser/Sider/default.aspx> accessed 28 May 2021.

[13] ibid.

[14] IMO Circular letter No 3646.

[15] ibid.

[16] Circulars 2018-003 and 2018-004.

[17] Marine Notice 53 of 4 January 2021.

[18] Circular 2019/0001.

[19] Circular No 14/2018.

[20] Engineering Circular No 07 of 2017.

[21] Marine Circular 37/2017.

[22] Information on Certificates and Documents issued by the Republic of Liberia of 14 September 2017.

[23] Merchant Shipping Notice No 139.

[24] Marine Notice MN-1-109-1 rev Nov/2020.

[25] Marine Guidance 1/2018.

[26] Norwegian Maritime Authority, “Electronic Certificates for Vessels” available at < https://www.sdir.no/en/shipping/vessels/certificates-and-documents-for-vessels/electronic-certificates-for-vessels/> accessed 28 May 2021.

[27] Shipping Circular No 26 of 2017.

[28] Marine Circular No 17-045 and Marine Notice 108.1.

[29] Merchant Marine Circular MMC-355.

[30] Merchant Shipping Notice (MSN) 01/2018 of 12 September 2018.

[31] Marine Information Note (MIN) 609 (M+F).

[32] Marine Safety Advisory No 07-20.

[33] ILO, Guidelines for port State control officers carrying out inspections under the Maritime Labour Convention, 2006. Geneva, International Labour Office, 2009.

[34] ibid, at paragraph 39.

[35] ibid, at paragraph 42.

[36] ibid, at paragraph 45.

[37] Paris MoU, “Guidelines for the use of electronic certificates” available at < https://www.parismou.org/guidelines-use-electronic-certificates> accessed 28 May 2021.

[38] ibid.

[39] IMO Resolution A. 1138(31).

[40] IMO Resolution A. 1138(31), Annex at Section 2.2.3.

The Third Group of Amendments to the Maritime Labour Convention 2006 Enters into force Later this Month

Later this month, the third group of amendments to the Maritime Labour Convention 2006 will be entering into force (26 December 2020). While these amendments have been discussed in a previous post on this blog https://iistl.blog/2020/06/10/singapore-passes-legislation-to-give-effect-to-the-third-group-of-amendments-to-the-maritime-labour-convention-2006/ , it may be worth reminding that they relate to Standard A 2.1, Standard A 2.2 and Regulation 2.5 of the Convention. The amendments ensure that a seafarer’s employment agreement (SEA) shall continue to have effect, wages and other contractual benefits under the SEA, relevant collective bargaining agreements or applicable national laws shall continue to be paid and the seafarers’ right to be repatriated shall not lapse for as long as a seafarer is held hostage on board a ship or ashore by pirates and armed robbers.

UK lifts embargo on vessels from Denmark in ‘Covid-mink’ crisis.

On 18 November the UK lifted its embargo on vessels from Denmark coming into UK ports which was imposed on 8 November. The new rules are:

Vessels and aircraft travelling directly from Denmark are not permitted to moor or land in England if they carry any passengers.

Aircraft and vessels which do not carry passengers (freight-only) will be allowed to land and moor in England as usual.

Any crew members who land or dock in the UK, who have been in Denmark in the 14 days before their arrival, must self isolate.

Crew members will only be allowed to enter (cross border control) if they are British nationals, Irish nationals or have the right to reside in the UK.

Careful who you sell that ship to!

Safety in ship recycling has been a priority of the EU for more than seven years. Under EU Regulation 1257/2013, in force since 2018, there is a complex system of EU approval of ship recycling facilities, it being illegal to send an EU-registered ship for recycling to an unapproved facility (meaning as often as not a not-very-deserted beach in India or Bangladesh, where she is broken up essentially by hand). This Regulation is to be retained EU law post-Brexit, though from the end of this year it will be significantly narrowed, in that it will only apply to UK-registered vessels (i.e. pretty few).

But quite a lot of ship recycling is outside the regulation. A case in point was the Maran Centaurus, a vessel previously in the news as the victim of a high-profile Somali hijacking in 2009 that led to payment of a then-record ransom of about $7 million. Owned by Greek interests, at the end of her life she was reflagged to Palau and sold to a buyer for demolition, who in turn resold her to a beachside Bangladeshi concern. During demolition a worker operating in very dangerous conditions was killed. His widow rightly concluded that the demolishers were not worth powder and shot. She instead sued the owner’s managing agents, a UK company who acting under the owners’ instructions had arranged the sale, alleging that it should have been foreseeable that unless they took steps to ensure that the vessel ended up in the hands of responsible breakers she would be broken up — as she was — without any serious regard for worker safety. The agents denied fault and applied for a strikeout, on the basis that a seller of a ship owed no duty in respect of dangerous practices that might later occur in relation to her. This was not, they said, a case of damage caused by hazardous materials aboard the vessel injuring a worker: there was nothing more here than a sale indirectly to a person likely to have a less than satisfactory attitude to industrial safety.

This writer has quite a lot of sympathy for this view. But in Begum v Maran (UK) Ltd [2020] EWHC 1846 (QB) Jay J declined a strikeout, regarding it as highly arguable that, despite the vessel herself not being unusually hazardous, this was a case where the defendants had created a foreseeable risk of harm and as such potentially owed a duty of care to the worker concerned.

Note that this is not a holding that there was a duty of care: merely that the argument that there was one wasn’t a non-starter. Nevertheless, it should worry shipowners everywhere (and cause them to check on their insurance coverage). It might even extend further: for example, what of a shipowner who sells (or bareboat charters) a vessel to an operator known to have a dodgy safety record: the logic of the Maran case seems to apply here too, and if it is followed we cannot rule out liability in the seller or owner.

Admittedly the if might be a biggish one. We said that we had sympathy for the defendant’s argument. The chances are that this case will now settle so we won’t ever get a final answer here. But the defendants’ case is strong. The case for making owners responsible for policing the safety records of disponees is by no means obvious, any mote than it is obvious that in selling my car I should have to take care lest the buyer is a known drink driver. It may well be worth fighting this issue again if, as seems highly likely, it comes back to the English courts in another case.

BIMCO COVID-19 Crew Change Clause – An Attempt to Facilitate Crew Changes

On 25 June, BIMCO announced the publication of their novel COVID-19 Crew Change Clause for Time Charter Parties. The clause provides shipowners with the right to deviate for crew changes ‘if COVID-19 related restrictions prevent crew changes from being conducted at the ports or places to which the vessel has been ordered or within the scheduled period of call’. Shipowners can exercise their right to deviate by giving charterers a written notice as soon as reasonably possible. The crew change costs will rest on shipowners, unless shipowners and charterers agree that the vessel will remain on hire during the deviation period, but at a reduced rate. In such case, the cost of bunkers consumed will be shared equally between shipowners and charterers.

With more than 200,000 seafarers currently working on board after the expiry of their contracts of employment, the COVID-19 Crew Change Clause at least ensures that shipowners can sail to those few ports were crew changes are possible, without facing the risk of breaching their contractual obligations under time charters. It should be noted, however, that this is not a panacea to the issue of crew changes. Recognising seafarers as ‘keyworkers’ and designating ports where crew changes can take place safely following the Protocols designed by the IMO (Circular Letter No 4204/Add 14 (5 May 2020) should remain a priority.