MLC breach: AMSA snatch ship that failed to pay crew wages

The Australian Maritime Safety Agency (AMSA) strikes Port State Control (PSC) fear into the black hearts of shonky ship owners and so it should. The concept of PSC, as entitled by both UNCLOS and SOLAS, was galvanised into action 20 years ago as a means of bringing badly managed and even corrupt Flags of Convenience under control. Initially intended as a temporary measure, it has been a roaring success as the truly effective auditor of IMO convention compliance by FOC’s and their ship owner customers. But PSC also has the authority to enforce the ILO’s Maritime Labour Convention (MLC) and this is the key to this week’s SeaBlog story.

On June 30, a complaint was made by the International Transport Federation (ITF, a global transport workers’ union) to AMSA that crew wages on board the bulk carrier MV ‘Rena’ had not been paid for several months. When the Bahamas flagged ‘Rena’ arrived to load coal at Hay Point, in Queensland, AMSA descended onboard to conduct a PSC inspection. Their findings included defects relating to the IMO’s SOLAS convention including a faulty emergency generator, faulty lifeboat engine starter and non-conformities in the ship’s Safety Management System (SMS). Additionally – and this is the apparent game changer – the vessel and her owners were found to be in breach of the MLC in relation to the full payment of crew wages.

In consequence of the AMSA inspectors’ findings, the vessel was detained pending rectification of the PSC listed defects as well as clear evidence that the crew had in fact been paid their wages in full. In the event, the SOLAS defects were rectified and the crew’s wages were finally settled on 3 August 2017. The reported outstanding total wage amount was USD 53,000.00. Not a huge amount but critical if you are a 3rd world seafarer with a family whose lives depend on your cash remittances home.

The fact that AMSA detained the ‘Rena’ until a serious breach of the MLC was rectified is not novel as the recent 2016 annual reports from both the Paris MOU and Tokyo MOU showed this to be a not uncommon event. However, what appears to be novel is that the ITF’s complaint instigated AMSA’s PSC inspection. Further, that this PSC inspection was then utilised as a legitimate mechanism to force payment of outstanding crew wages.

On the face of it, the apparent co-operation between the ITF and AMSA and the application of the MLC negated any need by the crew to instruct solicitors to arrest the ‘Rena’ to obtain payment of wages, as entitled in Australia and many countries. It also negated the usual crew concerns as to the payment of a hefty deposit to solicitors to facilitate a ship arrest, along with the usual undertaking as to the obligation to pay all the court’s costs of arrest and port costs during that period. Finally, and very importantly, there was no court ordered arrest warrant or writ in rem naming identifiable crew plaintiffs. As such the crew were seemingly protected from the usual employment blacklisting by crewing agents and ship owners that normally follow such events.

And what about the owners of the ‘Rena’. For them their misery did not stop with their vessel’s release by AMSA as it turned out their ship had been detained earlier in February, for other PSC deficiencies. Nor will their misery stop for some time. Extracts from AMSA’s website report on this incident are set out below:

“Substandard ships are not welcome in Australian waters and, as such, AMSA has banned the MV Rena from Australian ports for a period of six months. The ban will expire on 3 February 2018. If the ship returns to Australia after the ban expires and is detained again by AMSA for serious deficiencies, it may be subject to a further ban of 12 months.”

 The ‘Rena’s’ owners and their technical and crew managers got it very wrong. Australia, the European Union and the USA operate the most stringent PSC systems in the world. If your ship enters any ports in these places you must be prepared for close examination; as it should be. In short, not under the friendly gaze of a sometimes ineptly trained Flag State inspector seeking to keep your certificate revalidation business and annual tonnage tax payment on board his principal’s ship register. Ignore this unfortunate reality at your peril, inclusive of incurring potentially huge costs in terms of port charges and lost charter hire.

All in all, a positive and just outcome for the ship’s crew, the ITF, AMSA and the MLC and its application as the oft quoted “Seafarer’s Bill of Rights”. SeaProf is therefore quite certain that the ITF, with the ad hoc assistance of the regional PSC organisations around the world, will be extending the use of this very powerful MLC enforcement tactic to force resolution of both crew underpayment and other crew rights issues. As for ship owners, the warning is that the IMO and a significant number of their flag state members may tolerate substandard ships and management, but PSC – which operates independently of IMO control and politics – will not.

More about the fascinating concepts of Port State Control and Ship Registration strategy will be covered by SeaProf’s Capt. Robert Gordon at the upcoming “Key Elements of Shipping” course scheduled for 10 – 12 October in Singapore. To facilitate more energised and focused case study engagement, KES places are now limited to a maximum of 20 participants and seats are filling quickly. Please take a look at the BI Norwegian Business School/SeaProf course brochure and our list of outstanding corporate and academic speakers. We suggest you book now to avoid disappointment.




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