The working day in the Merchant Marine

1 Apr 2021

There are singularities that differentiate work in the merchant marine from work in other sectors on land. Weather conditions and the physical environment in which it is conducted, the duality of being both a workplace and a domicile, the distance from and limited communication with the outside, and the design itself of the vessel which maximises the space dedicated to the cargo while relativising habitability. On these grounds, the endless days of work of seafarers feel eternal, and fatigue emerges, constituting a source of environmental disasters and damage to health.

The international nature of maritime transport allowed for valueless globalisation due to flags of convenience, which are based on the “evasion” from the administrative rigidity that states exert over the vessels. With the purpose of establishing basic rules to enforce the right to rest, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) adopted four Conventions on hours of work on board, the first of them in 1936, and the last, the Convention 180, in 1996, which would later be integrated into the Maritime Labour Convention of 2006 (MLC-2006).

In accordance with Convention 180, the European Union Council adopted the Directive 1999/63/ CE, of June 21, with the goal of enforcing the Agreement on the organisation of working time of seafarers. Both the MLC-2006 and the Council Directive 1999/63/CE establish the maximum daily working hours by means of a mechanism that allows the states to freely choose one of the following options: a) the maximum number of hours of work, b) the minimum number of hours of rest. (According to Royal Decree 285/2002, the Spanish legislation laid down the maximum number of hours of work).

It is only fair to acknowledge the work that the ILO does in listening to the seafarers’ desperate call for a decent working day in the merchant marine, but still, the disproportionate weight of unscrupulous governments and employees has enabled to establish the option of the minimum of hours of rest, which implies in itself a bigger workload for seafarers in comparison with those legislations, such as the Spanish one, that are regulated based on the maximum number of hours of work. This subtle difference results in great flexibility of work in this sector, which enables most shipping companies to carry out the same work with fewer staff, as well as to plant the idea of the maximum working hours as the ordinary working day in both options.

As far as rest is concerned, it is divided into no more than two periods -at least one of them for 6 uninterrupted hours, with up to 14 continuous hours of work allowed in between two periods and the lack of a real instrument to keep track of the actual working hours raises serious doubts about the commitment to the safety and health of seafarers.

It is also notorious that there is no regulation to set the minimum correspondence for the overtime in excess of the legal ordinary working hours, the holidays or the daily/weekly resting time not taken, equivalent in resting days accruable to the vacation period.

Still, in general terms, the MLC-2006 marks a turning point for most seafarers in the world who used to work without minimum labour conditions. However, to really be effective, the MLC-2006 must be applied by states in its full extension and triple dimension. It is pointless for Spain to take action by inspecting its fleet if not as a port state, inspecting the vessels under other flags, or also to forget that it is an issuer of manpower, with thousands of nationals working on vessels with flags of other states, to whom it is necessary to provide with protection as favourable in terms of Social Security as that enjoyed by the rest of workers on land.

In a sector such as the merchant marine, with the above-exposed singularities, the work conditions of the greater part of the seafarers are derived from the advances achieved in the MLC-2006. Without forgetting the aforementioned demands, establishing a maximum at-sea period must also be a priority. Can you imagine the sum of endless working days on board for over one year at sea? We shall persist in our commitment to dignifying the lives of seafarers.


CRISTIAN CASTAÑO Head of Merchant Marine. State Sector of Maritime Affairs. FSC-CCOO

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