The Maritime Labor Convention 2006 - the MLC - has been ratified by the Philippines, which means it will come into effect next year. 

This is great news, and not only for mariners, but for our entire industry. Here's a post on the ILO website; and another from Naftrade. And this good 3-part article from Seafarer's Rights International goes into useful detail. There are lots of other good references about it on the Web, so if you know of one that covers some aspects these don't, then please link to it in the "Comments" section!

Why is MLC a good thing? For one thing, widespread enforcement of the agreement's provisions will begin to close a shameful back door through which unscrupulous companies have tried to make themselves "more competitive" by exploiting helpless seamen in order to cut crew costs. "More competitive" is in quotes because by any sane calculation a company that used this method to cut crew costs certainly couldn't be considered "competitive". If they ran the rest of their business like that, any knowledgeable shipper would stay as far from them as possible! There's cheap, and then there's stupid. A poorly-run company is a lousy risk in today's competitive - and litigious - shipping world.

And that's a second reason this is such good news: it adds to the professional status of the world's merchant seamen by setting a standard for all to meet - a standard that should be independently borne out by Port State Control (PSC) inspections. This rewards responsible flags and ship operators who maintain high standards. 

And all this - and more, such as protection for whistle-blowers - takes a lot of the onus for maintaining safe working conditions off of the individual seafarer and makes it everyone's concern.

I remember a ship that was arrested in Baltimore back in the '90s. I was a tug skipper at that time. We'd been dispatched to the ship, but sailing was delayed. After a bit I hailed a crewmember I could see on deck, and he told me the problem. He was the Chief Mate, and was leading a work action. The crew were all on deck refusing to work, the Master was isolated in the wheelhouse - a standoff. 

Turned out the crew had refused to sail the ship, hoping that in a US port they could successfully bring up their grievances. The Mate said they hadn't been paid in many months and the food was unfit to eat, among other abuses. Men who'd complained had been unceremoniously sent home from a previous port with no pay.

Since the ship was under arrest, our tugs left to go do other jobs. I never saw those guys again, but an article in the paper a few days later said that the striking crew had been paid what they were owed and sent home. A new crew was shipped, certain conditions were met, and the ship was allowed to sail. I wonder how the new crew made out? 

If you've done any reading about the history of the union movement at sea, or known any real old-timers, you know that the seaman's battle for union representation has been long and full of strife. Almost a century ago it was getting started in US ships, to the occasional accompaniment of violence and bloodshed - on both sides. 

And incredibly, once unions did become established, some of them used their own power to exploit seamen! Sometimes union leadership subverted their own democratic processes in order to keep power in the hands of an elite. Organized crime infiltrated some union organizations, with predictable results. There's some ugly history on both sides if you want to look it up. Human affairs can be messy!

But ask yourself - in spite of all this strife - why did the union movement come into being in the first place? Obviously, it addressed a crying need. In the end, all American seamen (whether union members or not) benefited. And so did American maritime industry as a whole. Standards pushed in large part by unions elevated the entire industry.

And I think that's where we are today, with the adoption of MLC - everyone benefits. There's no suggestion of a power play about this - responsible shipping companies and shipping organizations (see the GL YouTube interview above) have welcomed the news as eagerly as flag states and the unions. They see it as bringing stability and a level playing field to manning & training. 

And the greater professionalization of the mariner will result in better qualified, safer crews. If you were a shipowner, wouldn't you feel better about turning your multi-million dollar ship investment over to motivated, highly qualified crews? The MLC is a classic win-win.

As in all such things, a lot will depend on implementation. This post from Barista Uno at Marine Cafe Blog expresses justifiable caution on that front (read his other posts on the subject, as well, for some good information). But with so much already accomplished, I'm reasonably confident that the industry will complete the final laps.

Are you working for a company that will be affected by MLC's implementation? Have you worked toward bringing MLC into being? Has your country ratified the convention yet? Please let us know your point of view and how you think MLC will affect your working environment in the Comments section!
MV ICEBERG - click photo for TheNational story about crew's treatment
After 122 weeks - that's 2 years, 4 months and (endlessly) counting - the 22 surviving sailors on MV ICEBERG are still captive. Still captive, still held almost incommunicado, and still subject to beatings and abuse, according to their families. 

And - most painfully - they're still being ignored! Especially by those who should be morally charged with obtaining their release, including their employer and their own national governments. It seems the only folks who haven't forgotten these men are their families - and of course the pirates who hold them.

(To recap their story to date click "Iceberg 1" and "Iceberg I Movie" in the "Categories" listing to the right of the page. And for an excellent video about the human side of the piracy problem, click "Piracy The Human Cost Video" in that same list. Those posts also hold links to other resources about the captives.)

I know I just put up a post about MV ICEBERG a short time ago. And there's no breaking news to report. But tonight I came across a reference to Ansar Burney, the Pakastani lawyer and activist who played a role in the release of MV SUEZ last year. 

At that time, July 2011, it was reported that for his next project Burney would try to negotiate release of the seamen of MV ICEBERG I. Here is a news story from TheNational to that effect that was published last year - it's over a year old. 

Hope rose on that announcement. Mr. Burney had won praise for the job he did in breaking the MV SUEZ stalemate. He had even raised money from private citizens all over Pakistan for the cause. So it looked like his involvement in the MV ICEBERG I negotiations would signal an end to the cruel status quo for those captive seamen.

But that's essentially the last I've heard. News searches on the Web yield nothing but old news. What became of Mr. Burney's mission? Like the rest of the MV ICEBERG I story, it seems to have sunk into inaction and obscurity.

So I'm appealing to seamen everywhere! Have you seen later or better information about MV ICEBERG I, Ansar Burney's mission, or other info about this tragically murky saga? Please enlighten the rest of us with links and info. 

And as always, keep doing what you can to put the shameful MV ICEBERG I story front & center. Let the rest of us know what we can do to help in your efforts - concerted action gets results!

Being held in close captivity under inhuman conditions is cruel. Being beaten and mistreated in that captivity is even worse. But being ignored for years at a time while this is going on is unconscionable

Let's raise the heat on those who feel they can discount the humanity of these men - our own humanity is diminished if we fail to do what we can. 

BEAUJOLAIS, formerly NEW YORK GETTY at the scrapyard in Brownsville, TX 2006 - click photo for Shipspotting site
I've been missing for a while, visiting my old friend John, a marine Engineer, on the West coast. Since I live on the East coast, we're a long way apart and don't get to see each other often. But I've known John for 40 years, and he's my oldest and best friend. Time, distance and changing seagoing careers haven't dimmed our friendship!

John and I went down the Mississippi together (click "Fit 1" "Fit 2" & "Fit 3" in the Categories listing to the right of this page). And before that, way back when we were young seamen starting at the bottom, we sailed together on Getty's oil tankers, then homeported in Delaware City, Delaware. 

We both started in the galley, under a Filipino Chief Steward named Ebon. Back in those days, seagoing jobs weren't so easy to come by; and Ebon could remember when they were even harder to get. He worked us pretty hard (though he wasn't a bad guy) and if we complained, he'd remind us of his own early days, when crowds of hungry men were waiting on the dock ready to take any job in case a man was fired. Twenty men for each job, he'd exclaim! In those days, he told us, you shut up and did your job if you wanted to keep it - we young men didn't know how lucky we were. While neither John nor I, in our youthful cockiness, could quite get on board with this notion, we respected Ebon and got with his program. He had high standards and believed in doing a good job.

Not that he was without his quirks. My duties included carefully cleaning all the food storage areas every month - dry storage, chill box & freezer. As any sailor knows, these are large areas, the chill box and freezer each being sizable rooms, and dry storage occupying half the ship's beam. Cleaning them meant taking out or moving each item so the shelving could be soogied. The many wood gratings from the chill box and freezer were taken out on deck, scrubbed, and allowed to dry in the sun before being put back. It was a lot of work. 

When it was done Ebon would inspect, and he wasn't shy about pointing out shortcomings. I learned to do it right the first time. After Ebon was satisfied with the galley, the Captain would also have a look - he inspected the entire ship every month - and Ebon would accompany him around, visibly nervous that the Captain would find something to complain about.

One month Captain Brigham, with a somewhat misplaced sense of humor, decided to poke fun at Ebon. Near the end of his inspection, at the foot of the ladder leading out of dry storage, he suddenly looked down and started stamping his foot as if he'd seen a cockroach. Ebon jumped about a mile, looking around for the roach, which didn't exist. The Captain thought this was funny as Hell and had a good laugh. Then he went chuckling about his business.

Not so, Ebon. The phantom roach had upset him. So he had me do the entire job over again - chill box, freezer, gratings and all! The Captain got a good muttered cussing from me that day.

The photo above is of a ship called BEAUJOLAIS, formerly NEW YORK GETTY - a sister to the DELAWARE GETTY, on which John and I first served under Ebon. The ship is gone now, her life played out - but the friendship between John and me has endured, and is better than ever. It will never be scrapped! In a world full of shifting realities, an old and firm friendship is a precious thing, and I'm very grateful for it. 

Have you been blessed with such a friendship in your travels? Look around - maybe a lifelong friend is joking with you right now. Nationality, culture, even religion needn't be a barrier to deep understanding and lasting friendship. If you have such a friend, you're lucky!

Can you tell us about a friendship that has survived the swirling currents of our profession? Please respond in the Comments section!