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. 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. However, one issue was whether the text of the MLC, 2006, would permit the use of such electronic certificates. Furthermore, concerns were raised as to whether the various port State control authorities would accept those electronic certificates. Finally, there was uncertainty as to how such electronic documents could be displayed on board ships to conform with the requirements of the Convention. 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.
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. 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’. 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. 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. 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.
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. 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. 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. The certificates would also be protected from alteration or tampering through encryption and use of a digital signature.
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, Bahamas, Belgium, Cyprus, India, Kiribati, Liberia, Malta, Marshall Islands, Myanmar, Norway, Singapore, Palau, Panama, Sri Lanka, and the UK. 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.
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. In fact, those guidelines provide that port State control inspectors should use their professional judgment in carrying out all duties. 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, and that an inspection may end after a satisfactory document review. 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. 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.
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. 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. 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.
 For example, Belgium (Circular 2020/002).
 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.
 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.
 ibid at page 25.
 Danish Maritime Authority, “Digital Certificates for Seafarers” available at < https://www.dma.dk/SoefarendeBemanding/SoefartsbogBeviser/DigitaleBeviser/Sider/default.aspx> accessed 28 May 2021.
 IMO Circular letter No 3646.
 Circulars 2018-003 and 2018-004.
 Marine Notice 53 of 4 January 2021.
 Circular 2019/0001.
 Circular No 14/2018.
 Engineering Circular No 07 of 2017.
 Marine Circular 37/2017.
 Information on Certificates and Documents issued by the Republic of Liberia of 14 September 2017.
 Merchant Shipping Notice No 139.
 Marine Notice MN-1-109-1 rev Nov/2020.
 Marine Guidance 1/2018.
 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.
 Shipping Circular No 26 of 2017.
 Marine Circular No 17-045 and Marine Notice 108.1.
 Merchant Marine Circular MMC-355.
 Merchant Shipping Notice (MSN) 01/2018 of 12 September 2018.
 Marine Information Note (MIN) 609 (M+F).
 Marine Safety Advisory No 07-20.
 ILO, Guidelines for port State control officers carrying out inspections under the Maritime Labour Convention, 2006. Geneva, International Labour Office, 2009.
 ibid, at paragraph 39.
 ibid, at paragraph 42.
 ibid, at paragraph 45.
 Paris MoU, “Guidelines for the use of electronic certificates” available at < https://www.parismou.org/guidelines-use-electronic-certificates> accessed 28 May 2021.
 IMO Resolution A. 1138(31).
 IMO Resolution A. 1138(31), Annex at Section 2.2.3.