Dossier Human Rights

Using the growth of the cruise industry to get better working conditions aboard underway

Interview with Fabrizio Barcellona from the International Transport Workers' Federation

Despite the fact that the shipping and cruise sector is one of the most regulated sectors, still,there are situations that need closer attention as improper interpretations of international regulations may result in disadvantages for seafarers and bad working conditions aboard cruise liners. The International Transport Workers' Federation (ITF)represents more than 900.000 unionized seafarers and helps affiliated unions to improve working conditions for all seafarers, including workers on cruise ships. Fabrizio Barcellona, Assistant Secretary of the Seafarers, Fisheries and Inland Navigation sections at ITF, gave us insights into the international legal instruments and their effects on the recent developments regarding the working conditions on board of cruise ships.

TW: In 2013, the Maritime Labour Convention (MLC), set out by the International Labour Organisation (ILO), the United Nations specialized agency addressing decent work, entered into force. What does it cover?

Fabrizio Barcellona:The MLC aims to ensure minimum working and living standards for all seafarers and to establish a level playing field amongst countries and ship owners. It is a unique and revolutionary instrument as it embodies the first international legally binding document that focuses on the human element of the shipping industry - the seafarers and their right to decent employment. The MLC covers a comprehensive set of standards regarding employment agreements, hours of work, payment of wages, paid annual leave, repatriation, health and safety protection – to name only a few.

It clearly defines, that anyone working aboard a ship, is classified as a seafarer and therefore enjoys these rights. This definition is particularly relevant in the cruise industry, where the vast majority of employees do not work in classical nautical occupations, such as navigating or operating the ship, but in the hotel, casino, shop or entertainment area of the modern cruise vessels. Before the MLC, these employees were not protected by any conventions. The MLC closed this legal gap.


TW: How is the MLC enforced to make sure that the seafarers can really enjoy their rights and are not exploited workers on, the so-called, ‘sweat ships’?

Fabrizio Barcellona:First of all, all states, that ratify the convention, have to adapt their national legislationin accordance with the MLC to comply with all its provisions and enforce it at the national level. The ratifying states issue certificates only to those vessels, which prove their compliance with the MLC. In addition, the state port authorities of ratifying states have the right to control all arriving ships if they comply with the MLC - regardless whether the ship sails under the flag of a country that has ratified the convention or not. If the ships fail to comply, the state port authority can detain the ships until the issues are resolved. Thus, they can hold the individual ship owner accountable for granting all rights laid out in the MLC. A third enforcement mechanism entails, that all crew members can file complaints in cases of MLC violations either to the designated person on board, directly to the flag state administration or to the port state officer in the port of call.

In addition, international ITF inspectors inspect around 9.000-11.000 ships per year, with which they have ITF union agreements on a regular basis, and hold the ship owners to account. It also offers support to seafarers who file a complaint.

TW: Are there any weaknesses in the MCL?

Fabrizio Barcellona:Despite the multiple ways to check a ships’ compliance, the level of enforcement of the MLC strongly depends on the political will of the country under which the ship sails. Another example is that in some countries the port state controls are executed more vigilant than in others. The process of translating the MLC into national law bears the risk the provisions of the convention are watered down by the ratifying states by either weakly interpreting or not efficiently enforcing the standards laid out in the MLC, particularly in the FOCs. There have been attempts to exclude certain crew members e.g. in the shopping or hotel areas aboard the cruise ship from the definition of seafarers at legal national level – thus denying them the rights granted in the MLC. However, there are limitations on what can and cannot be considered as substantially equivalent to the provisions of the convention.

One of the problems that is unfortunately not addressed in the MLC, is that legally there is no basis for continuity of employment. Short-term contracts between 3 and maximum 12 months are the norm. Following the paid leave periods therefore there is no guarantee that seafarers are to be called back on board, which is a concern for all those seafarers that have to plan their life and the one of their families.

TW: Has the MLC lead to an improvement of the working conditions aboard? How have they changed over the last years?

Fabrizio Barcellona:In the past, it was difficult for employees that were hired through external recruitment agencies, so-called concessioners, to claim their rights related to their work on the ships as they were not directly employed by the ship owner. Now, the MLC holds the owner of the ship to account - he has to ensure that the rights of the seafarers aboard their ship are respected, whether they are directly employed by the owner or hired by a concessioner.

The work aboard is geared towards pleasing the guests all around the clock, so, long working hours and overtime are still common. However, working on a cruise ship is still perceived as an economic opportunity and a way to pursue a life-long career by many young people, particularly from the Philippines, Indonesia, India, Eastern Europe as well as Central and Latin America.

Over the past ten to fifteen years, the working conditions aboard cruise ships improved dramatically, especially with regards to accommodation, recreational spaces, and connectivity. But at the same time, new problems arose. As the cruise liners are getting bigger and bigger, the number of the seafarers on board nearly doubled. While in the nineties around 700 seafarers worked on the ships, nowadays almost 2000 seafarers work on the bigger cruise vessels. The fact that the crew is working and living together on such a small space with very little privacy and almost no opportunities to leave the ship, can create  gender problems, and stress related issues. On top, the staff is culturally very diverse. Up to 71 different nationalities can be found working together on board of a single ship which can result in cross-cultural misunderstanding.

TW:Which challenges does the global cruise industry face in the future?

Fabrizio Barcellona:I am concerned that the sector might be building up too many capacities for the long run. More and more cruise ships are being built and more and more staff is hired. However, if the demand for cruises does not grow at the same pace as anticipated by the industry or tourists do not want to go on a cruise more than once, the market might be saturated quicker than predicted. In the long term seafarers could potentially loose their job.

On the other hand, the growth of the sector means that the competition for attracting workers amongst the cruise companies is increasing. A shortage of skilled workforce is not only predicted but already the case.To attract future employees cruise ship companies have to improve their conditions on board, not only regarding wages and contracts, but also pension schemes and educational programs. So in the end, this trend could also lead to achieve better working conditions for the seafarers on cruises.