You are here

Seafarers have the right to a healthy and safe working environment

Seafarers have the right to a healthy and safe working environment
The Editorial Team August 8, 2023

International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) supports the idea that overlooking seafarer’s rights is not only illegal but also the cause for major safety threats.

In particular, ITF in its Human Rights Due Diligence guidance firmly states that seafarers’ right to a healthy and safe work environment should be respected and treaded with utmost care. Regulations and declarations on the matter do not only exist as legal texts but to ensure that people onboard the ship are safe and sound, working in conditions that ensure their dignity and wellbeing.

As ITF warns, the potential human, environmental and biodiversity costs of accidents at sea are notably severe:

Fatigue and exhaustion are major risks associated with life at sea, especially as owner-operators circumvent minimum safe manning, overwork crew beyond maximum overtime levels, and rely on exploitative working conditions. Seafarers are under increasing pressure to do additional tasks without adequate rest time or training.
There is a mental health crisis at sea and concerning rates of depression (25%), anxiety (17%) and suicidal ideation (20%) among seafarers. Contributing factors have been shown to be work environmental conditions, including a non-caring work culture; violence at work; and a lack of training, with the occurrence of notable high-risk periods during an extension of a voyage.

Geographical insecurity

ITF claims that responsible companies have sensitive processes in place to review decisions to operate, source, or continue existing business activities in conflict zones, post conflict or otherwise high-risk countries.

These circumstances increase the risk of gross human rights abuses, so industry stakeholders must carry out additional due diligence through a sharper lens, to identify, prevent and mitigate these increased risks. They also have the responsibility to avoid contributing to breaches of international humanitarian law (e.g. complicity in war crimes) and exacerbating the conflict, ITF notes.

Consequences of geographical insecurity on seafarers:

A company may decide not to operate or to responsibly withdraw from a conflict-affected area to avoid contributing to conflict or human rights impacts. However, that same company may have rented space on a ship that stops at ports in this area along its route, inadvertently affecting the seafarers’ rights to shore leave, or their safety when disembarking.
Conflict in seafarers’ home states may impact the dynamics on board between crew members from different key labour supply countries (e.g. Ukraine and Russia provide 14.5 percent of the global seafaring labour force).
Certain international waters are high-risk areas for piracy and require armed security personnel onboard.

Laws that protect seafarer’s right to a health and safe working environment

#1 International Labour Organization (ILO)

In June 2022, occupational safety and health was recognised as a core labour right and incorporated into the ILO Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work.

As such, ILO Convention 155 on Occupational Safety and Health has become a core convention which must be respected by brands and incorporated into their HRDD. ‘Health’ in this Convention is defined to include ‘the physical and mental elements affecting health which are directly related to safety and hygiene at work’.

ILO Convention 155 empowers workers to remove themselves from a situation of imminent and serious danger to life or health without suffering consequences, such as blacklisting.

#2 Maritime Labour Convention (MLC)

The MLC includes many provisions for a healthy and safe environment on board, including the maximum length of time on board, the right to shore leave, the right to medical treatment, the crewing of vessels, and the standards of accommodation and food.

There are a range of occupational health and safety risks associated with the living and working conditions of seafarers.

#3 The Geneva Declaration on Human Rights at Sea

The Geneva Declaration on Human Rights at Sea was drafted in 2019 by a group of international legal and nautical professionals.

In the many zones that the sea produces, such as port states, flag states, and coastline states, the Declaration lays out a set of rules for governments on how to uphold human rights. These include the responsibility to uphold one’s right to life, the ban on torture and other torturous, inhumane, or humiliating treatment or punishment, and the duty to protect migrant and refugee ships.

The Declaration is structured around the understanding that the protection of human rights at sea rests on four fundamental principles:

Human rights at sea are universal. They apply at sea, as they do on land.
All persons at sea, without any distinction, are entitled to their human rights.
There are no maritime specific reasons for denying human rights at sea.
All human rights established under both treaty and customary international law must be respected at sea.

#4 The Seafarers Charter

Launched last month, the Seafarers’ Charter‘s provisions largely support the employment protections and wellbeing of seafarers. Although not exclusively, it is largely directed at ships covered by the Seafarers Wages Act. All crew members operating aboard ships, regardless of their grades, positions, or duties, are subject to the Seafarers’ Charter’s stipulations.

The Seafarers’ Charter requires employers to:

Pay seafarers for overtime at a rate of a least 1.25 times the basic hourly rate
Ensure adequate training and development is provided
Provide employees with a full, indefinite contract
Allow seafarers to receive social security benefits, including sickness benefits, family benefits, and medical care
Adopt roster patterns considering fatigue, mental health and safety
Provide adequate rest periods between shifts and rosters
Carry out regular drug and alcohol testing
As well as the Seafarers’ Wages Act and the Charter, strong action has been taken against rogue employers using controversial practices which was revealed in the plans to create a statutory code of practice​