By George Markopouliotis
The sea is crucial for our lives. On an island like Cyprus, surrounded by the sea, we know this better than most.
Transport by sea is essential for the European economy: 80% of world trade is carried by sea, while short-sea shipping carries 40% of intra-European freight.
Moreover, maritime transport has also an impact on citizens’ quality of life, offering transport services to both tourists and inhabitants of islands and peripheral regions. Thus, more than 400 million sea passengers pass through European ports each year.
The people who make it all happen are our sailors, our seafarers.
There are at least 230,000 active seafarers in maritime transport in EU Member States. Their work is vital to all of us and it is our duty to ensure good working conditions for them.
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This is why the European Commission is proposing that an agreement between social partners to improve the working conditions of seafarers on board of EU-flagged vessels, be enshrined in EU law.
The proposal will ensure that seafarers are better protected against abandonment in foreign ports in the future, and will strengthen their rights to compensation in the event of death or long-term disability due to an occupational injury, illness or hazard.
Commissioner for Employment, Social Affairs, Skills and Labour Mobility, Marianne Thyssen, said: “Maritime transport remains crucial for Europe’s economic development. Today’s proposal will strengthen seafarers’ protection and underpin fair competition in the maritime sector.”
The global nature of the shipping industry, with different national laws applying depending on the state of the ship owner, the flag state of the vessel or the nationality of the crew, make it difficult for seafarers to get speedy and satisfactory redress in case of abandonment, injury or death.
In 2006, the International Labour Organisation adopted the Maritime Labour Convention, aiming to create a single, coherent instrument embodying all up-to-date standards applying to international maritime labour.
It provides a set of rights and protection measures at work for all seafarers, regardless of their nationality or the flag of the ship. So far, the MLC has been ratified by 81 countries, including the vast majority of EU Member States.
The provisions of the Convention were incorporated into EU law in 2009. While the Convention addresses some of the problems relating to liability and compensation in connection with crew claims for death, personal injury and abandonment, seafarers working far from home are still vulnerable to potential abandonment in foreign ports if ship owners no longer fulfil their responsibilities.
Since 2004, 192 merchant ships have been abandoned, of which 21 were EU-flagged vessels. In 2016, five merchant vessels counting 58 seafarers were abandoned in EU ports.
The new proposal will improve seafarers’ protection in the event of abandonment, including when the ship owner fails to pay contractual wages for a period of at least two months, or when the ship owner has left the seafarer without the necessary maintenance and support to execute ship operations.
The proposal will also improve the mechanisms by which compensation is provided. This will make the payment of claims quicker and easier, which will help avoid the long delays in payment and red tape that seafarers or their families frequently encounter in case of abandonment or in case of death or long-term disability resulting from accidents or illness at work.
George Markopouliotis is head of the European Commission Representation in Cyprus