The ILO and Policy toward ‘Decent Work’ in Seafaring Sectors

Policy Brief: The ILO and Policy toward ‘Decent Work’ in Seafaring Sectors

Simon Renwick


The fishing industry directly affects the economic security and well-being of hundreds of millions of people. However, the industry is also fraught with practical and logistical dangers. The seafaring industry is global in scale, and this can leave seafarers exposed to many risks relating to health and safety, payment of wages and protection.

The ILO works under a banner of ‘decent work’, and in a post-Global Financial Crisis environment, it  potentially is harder for states to keep their commitment to internationally set standards on Seafaring, such as funding medical examinations of seafarers, which require a wide variety of tests[1] . This brief looks at the ways in which the ILO is seeking to develop greater protections and improved conditions for seafarers, through the ideal of ‘decent work’, and the challenges facing countries in meeting such standards.

The International Labour Organization (ILO) is a U.N. body that works on the basis of tripartite action by governments, workers and employers. The aim of the ILO is to set established standards for work and to implement programmes and initiatives that are recognised by its member countries and improve working conditions.

The 323rd Governing Body meeting of the ILO, held in March 2015, discussed the future role of the ILO and emerging trends in the global labour market. A running theme throughout proceedings was the notion of ‘decent work’, the idea of making sure employment can “pave the way for broader social and economic advancement, strengthening individuals, their families and communities”[2]. This brief will look at the ILO’s policy towards seafarers, and particularly how the ILO is trying to achieve ‘decent work’ for seafarers through the introduction of standards and universal initiatives to improve their working conditions.

Seafarers, their relevance and the importance of the ILO

Seafaring has a direct economic impact on hundreds of millions of people across the globe. To take fishing as an example, 30 million people are directly employed under fishing services and a further 120 million people depend on workers in the fishing sector for economic support[3].  Seafaring work relates to anyone working on board a boat or vessel at sea, which includes a wide variety of employees, from cruise-ship workers, through to fisherman. Seafaring work presents unique challenges to those employed within the sector.

The Work in Fishing; Convention No.188 & Recommendation No.199 document produced by the ILO states that “Fishers have conditions of work that are different from those experience by workers in other sectors”[4]. Furthermore, the work of seafarers is relatively hazardous compared to other sectors, which only heightens the need for standards to ensure seafaring safety.
The ILO and policy toward seafarers

The ILO has worked hard to improve employment standards for Seafarers. From the creation of documents regarding health and safety regulations in ports[5], through to documents that assess ways to reduce security breaches and “the threat posed by unlawful acts” in ports[6], a lot has been done to investigate means to improve working conditions. One of the most fundamental pieces of work by the ILO on the topic has been the Labour Maritime Convention (LMC)[7]. The LMC came into force in 2013  and sets standards in respect of Freedom of Association, Collective Bargaining and the elimination of Child Labour in seafaring[8]. The Convention covers minimum age for employment, training and conditions for employment sets the standards for modern conditions within seafaring work. Crucially though, Article 13 of the Convention stipulates that “The Governing Body of the International Labour Office shall keep the working of this Convention under a continuous review”[9]. This is in order to ensure that ongoing consideration is given to the applicability and effectiveness of standards, and to assure that no standards become outdated.

Current ILO suggested policy toward Seafarers: Identification Cards

One of the most discussed policy routes for improving seafarer work over the past decade has been the introduction of identification documents. In 2003, ILO Convention No.185 was introduced, which brought forward the notion of a ‘Seafarers Identity Document’. It was intended that the document would contain all of the vital information necessary to ensure both identification and a Seafarer’s right to privacy[10].

The idea of identification documents has been advocated within the ILO as it is an “issue considered crucial for improving maritime security is ensuring that seafarers have documents enabling their “positive verifiable identification”. Many countries will be requiring such identification before they are prepared to grant special facilities enabling seafarers to carry out the international professional moves necessary for their work and well-being”[11].

As mentioned previously, the ILO regularly reviews policies in the area of maritime labour, due to the changing nature of work in sector. This year a Committee of Experts met before the Governing Body meeting to explore the feasibility, costs and benefits of the policy implemented in 2003[12]. In addition, many countries have yet to ratify Convention No.185 and the ILO wished to understand why this is the case.

The Committee of Experts produced a report that was then presented to the Governing Body at the 323rd meeting. The Committee found several key reasons why the identification documentation in Convention 185 was not feasible.

The most fundamental reason related to the type of visual identification needed of a sailor. Convention 185 recommended the use of a two-dimensional barcode containing fingerprints to identify physically a sailor or seafarer. However, the Committee noted that this method of identification is not consistent with International Civil Aviation Organization standards for travel documents, and that many states instead followed the ICAO’s recommended method of a “facial image in a contactless chip”[13].

The Committee regarded the gap between the ILO’s suggestions and current standards of worker identification as the primary reason why there has been relatively low ratification of Convention 185. The Committee also suggested that the ILO should continue lobbying states to adopt Convention 185, and that the Convention should be made more workable by aligning documentation highlighted in the Conventions Annexes with ICAO standards, as this would help countries to be more able to afford the identification documents required for seafarers.

Assessing ILO Policy regarding Seafarers

The recent meeting of experts on the Seafarer Identity Documents shows firstly, and crucially, that the right to decent work for seafarers is something the ILO still recognises to be of pivotal importance. The importance is further underlined by the tripartite Committee of Experts recommendation that a 2016 Governing Body Meeting should include a session devoted to considering proposals made by an Ad Hoc committee, which will be established to examine the recommendations made in the Committee of Experts report meeting.

Moving specifically onto the identity documentation policy, the policy has positive aspects but also aspects that need to be revised. Beginning with the latter, the policy of document identification has been regarded by groups such as the aforementioned Committee of Experts as being out of touch with modern standards and formats of technology for identification. This has had implications for the application of Convention 185 policy and resulted in a lower-than-expected number of ratifications.

The fact that a committee was brought forward to examine this issue highlights the benefits of the accountability functions put in place by the ILO regarding seafarers. As already mentioned, with the Labour Maritime Convention the ILO looked to continuously review policy toward seafarers, to make sure it was not only feasible but was also in line with core ILO principles such as ‘Decent Work’.

The Seafarer industry is constantly providing security challenges for workers and employers due to the effects of globalization. The ILO’s policy to review ideas and standards, such as identity documents, is a positive and successful one as it means that policies do not become outdated, and their effectiveness can be enhanced.


[1] International Labour Organization (2013) ‘Guidelines on the medical examinations of seafarers’, Geneva: International Labour Office ‘

[2] International Labour Organization (2015) ‘Decent Work Agenda’,–en/index.htm

[3] International Labour Organization (2011) ‘Work in Fishing Convention and Recommendation, 2007: Action Plan 2011-2016’,

[4] International Labour Organization (2007)  ‘Work in Fishing Convention No.188 & Recommendation No.199’, p.2

[5] International Labour Organization (2005) ‘Safety and Health in Ports’, Geneva: International Labour Office

 [6] International Labour Organization (2004) ‘Security in Ports: ILO and IMO Code of Practice’, Geneva: International Labour Office, p.1

 [7] International Labour Organization (2006) ‘Maritime Labour Convention’,—ed_norm/—normes/documents/normativeinstrument/wcms_090250.pdf

 [8] Ibid., Art. 3

 [9] Ibid., Art. 13
[10] International Labour Organization (2005) ‘Convention 185 – ILO Seafarers’ Identity Documents Convention (Revised) 2003’, Articles 3-4

[11] International Labour Organization (2011) ‘Seafarers’ Identity Documents’, International Labour Organization Seafarers Resources Section,–en/index.htm

[12] Outcome of the Meeting of Experts concerning the Seafarers’ Identity Documents Convention (Revised), 2003 (No. 185) (Geneva, 4–6 February 2015)—ed_norm/—normes/documents/meetingdocument/wcms_329890.pdf

[13] Ibid.


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