The COVID-19 pandemic has brought the plight of seafarers to the forefront of public discourse, so much that over forty Member States of the International Maritime Organization (IMO) including Nigeria,1 designated seafarers as key workers as a means of resolving the crew change crisis. This was imperative owing to the immense contributions seafarers played in ensuring international trade was unaffected by the pandemic. Despite this declaration, the rights of seafarers are still negatively affected, such as unpaid wages, unfavourable work conditions, repatriation, annual leave etc., by the activities of vessel owners.
In this article, we shall discuss the various rights of seafarers in Nigeria in line with international conventions and local legislation.
WHAT SEAFARERS' RIGHTS ARE AVAILABLE IN NIGERIA?
Seafarers' rights are protected under International and Nigerian law. The primary legislation on the rights of any Nigerian working as a seafarer is contained in Chapter IV of the 1999 Constitution (as amended). However, the legislation worth noting is the Maritime Labour Convention, 2006 (the ''MLC 2006'') which was ratified by the Government of Nigeria on 18 June 2013.2 The MLC 2006 is often referred to as the Seafarers' Bill of Rights and sets out the rights of seafarers within and outside Nigeria.
Some of the rights accorded to seafarers' in Nigeria include:
- The right to a safe and secure workplace;
- The right to wages;
- The right to fair terms of employment;
- The right to arrest a ship;
- The right to decent living and working conditions; and
- The right to health protection, medical care, welfare measures and other forms of social protection.
THE RIGHT TO A SAFE AND SECURE WORKPLACE
Ships are one of the most dangerous places to work which makes the welfare of seafarers working onboard any vessel very important. One of the most important rights is a safe and secure working environment for the seafarers3. As such, there must be enough hands on deck to prevent the seafarers from being exposed to work-related risks which can be prevented by complying with safety standards.4
THE RIGHT TO WAGES
Under the Merchant Shipping Act 2007 (the Act), the seaman5 working on board a Nigerian vessel has the right to his wages at the time at which the seaman commences work or at the time specified in the agreement.6 Further to the right to receive wages, a seaman also has the following rights:
- The right not to forfeit his lien on the ship; or
- Be deprived of any remedy for the recovery of his wages, to which, in the absence of the agreement, he would be entitled; or
- Abandon his right to wages in case of the loss of the ship; or
- Abandon any right that he has or obtains in the nature of salvage.
THE RIGHT TO FAIR TERMS OF EMPLOYMENT
One of the most important seafarers' rights is the right to fair terms of employment. Seafaring is an international profession, therefore, international best practices are important when drafting a Seafarer Employment Agreement (the ''SEA''). The SEA must include important clauses such as the position on board e.g. 3rd Engineer, Able Seaman, Cook, the amount of wages and calculation, paid annual leave, conditions for terminating the contract, including notice period for agreements, health and social security protection benefits etc.7
THE RIGHT TO ARREST A SHIP
A seafarer can arrest a ship within Nigeria's territorial waters regardless of his nationality and the flag of the ship on the basis of a maritime lien8. This right of arrest enures to the seafarer for underpayment or non payment of wages in Nigeria.
THE RIGHT TO DECENT LIVING AND WORKINGCONDITIONS
The nature of work done by seafarers exposes them to exploitation, and unfair labour practice by shipowners, which makes the right to a decent living and working condition important. The working conditions are important as this can affect the physical and psychological well being of the seafarer and the quality of job done on board the vessel.
THE RIGHT TO HEALTH PROTECTION, MEDICAL CARE, WELFARE MEASURES AND OTHER FORMS OF SOCIAL PROTECTION
Seafarers are exposed to hazards while at sea and they are entitled to medical care and protection on board any vessel. Also, one of the most prominent health challenges of seafarers is loneliness, separation from family etc. which takes a toll on their mental health.9 As such, seafarers should have access to prompt medical care from the flag State as the well-being of seafarers shouldn't take less importance than people ashore.
Seafarers play an essential role in international trade and supply chain. Therefore, the need to ensure the protection of their rights have become crucial in the wake of COVID-19 regardless of their nationality and the flag of the ships can't be overemphasised.10 The amount of work done and risk exposure to ensure goods are transported safely from one country to another puts severe strain on the health and welfare of seafarers.
If you think your right has been violated or need legal advice on same as a seafarer, it's important to seek legal advice.
1 https://guardian.ng/business-services/maritime/nigeria-44-others-designate-seafarers-key-workers/ accessed 3 February 2021.
3 Convention 032 (Protection against Accidents (Dockers)), 1932 is in force in Nigeria. This Convention provides for appropriate national occupational safety and health structures that will help ensure implementation across board of sound occupational safety and health practices in Nigeria
4 http://www.ljs.lt/images/A%20Seafarers%20Bill%20of%20Rights_English.pdf accessed 2 February 2021
5 The Merchant Shipping Act doesn't use the term seafarer, but uses the term seaman.
6 Section 151 of the Act
7 https://www.veristar.com/rest/jcr/repository/collaboration/sites/veristarinfo/web%20contents/bv-content/services/servicesByActivity/shipsInService/MLC/Preparing/Preparing_section_3/3_4/documents/4796.1.3-4.pdf accessed 2 February 2021
8 Section 5 (3) of the Admiralty Jurisdiction Act defines maritime liens as a lien for "salvage, damage done by a ship, wages of the master or a member of the crew of a ship or master's disbursements".
10 https://ec.europa.eu/transport/modes/maritime/seafarers/employment_en accessed on 2 February 2021
The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.