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June 8, 2022

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Is the devil in the detail of seafarer internet access?

Seafarers have won the right to mandatory internet access while at sea, under an update to the Maritime Labour Convention 2006 (MLC) agreed earlier this month. However, how much access they can expect, where and at what cost, remain to be seen.

The latest Special Tripartite Committee (STC) meeting for the MLC ended in Geneva on 13 May, with agreement on a number of changes including what the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) called a commitment to better ‘social connectivity’ for seafarers.

The MLC is an international treaty designed to protect seafarers’ rights and has been ratified by more than 100 countries, who represent over 90% of the world fleet. One of its provisions is that governments, shipowners and seafarer representatives meet periodically to keep the convention under review and up to date.

The right to communications for seafarers under the MLC – sometimes known as the seafarers’ bill of rights – was previously only available in emergencies with provision included in the non-Mandatory part of the convention.

Current access to communications is highly divergent, with many vessel operators providing high quality access, sometimes for free of charge to their crews, while other seafarers, often those operating in the developing world or away from strong inspection regimes, having little or no access.

With the falling cost of mobile devices and the spread of cellular services, a typical picture reported by seafarer welfare agencies is of sailors with a phone and bag full of SIM cards, which they use when within range of land or in port.

Seafarer charity Mission to Seafarers operates a network of ship visitors who focus on crew welfare, including access to communications. One of its chaplains describes the current focus as distributing donated free 20GB SIM cards to Ukrainian seafarers, a deal facilitated by the UK’s Merchant Navy Welfare Board.

It has also been distributing topped-up fully functioning Wi-Fi modems which it offers on a loan and return basis. The mission also uses grants to provides phone card top-ups to keep seafarers in contact with loved ones. The mission reports that slowly, more crews are reporting some sort of internet aboard the vessels. The MLC development “is an excellent development and one we applaud,” it says.

Cost, access and quality remain at issue, with wide variances in what seafarers can expect onboard ship. In its communique, the ITF noted its disappointment that shipowners and governments might still seek to charge crews to get online.

“Working for long periods at sea can be isolating, and a lack of contact with the outside world can have profound implications for seafarers’ wellbeing — which we saw the worst effects of during Covid,” said Mark Dickinson, Vice Chair of the ITF Seafarers’ Section.

Despite the fact that most ships already have the technology to provide internet access, ITF says that shipowners have been slow to provide this to crews, with those owners insisting that they should be able to limit access and be able to charge seafarers for internet connectivity.

“Being able to keep in touch with family and friends isn’t just a nice-to-have, it’s a basic human right. That’s why we fought so hard for seafarers to be given internet access and to have a mandatory provision in the MLC.”

The ITF Seafarers Group lobbied to ensure that any charges levied on seafarers remain an exception, and if any charges are imposed that they are reasonable. Governments were also encouraged to increase internet access in ports and associated anchorages without cost to seafarers.

Capt. Kuba Szymanski, Secretary General of shipmanagers association InterManager also welcomed the change. While noting that many third party and in-house managers already provide shipboard internet access, he warned the devil may rest in the detail.

“Seafarers have the right to access but do they have coverage in the locations they are sailing? Busy routes will have a good level of coverage, quieter routes probably much less,” he points out.

Until now, owners and managers have worked to a ‘best practice’ standard and the remainder will have no choice but to catch-up and there should be no exceptions. “Seafarers are no different to any other workers “and we don’t ask for special treatment, just equitable treatment,” he adds.

Vessel operators will also have to decide what freedoms and restrictions they put in place and what is acceptable in terms of software applications. For example, seafarers stand to benefit from applications such as the new IMO Bookshelf which includes the full library of IMO content available on any device and available to read offline – should access be permitted.

“This definitely opens up an area that we need to talk about, decide what we want and how to adopt it,” says Szymanski. “We need to discuss standards and agree what is acceptable in terms of internet access for seafarers.”

He also agreed that cost of access could be an issue for seafarers. It is easy to rack up a large mobile phone bill on land so seafarers will need to be careful. “The preferred approach has to be that access is free of charge or cheap for seafarers,” he added

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