EurWORK European Observatory of Working Life

Maritime labour standards


The term ‘maritime labour standards’ is used to describe those regulations, initially established at international level through the International Labour Organisation (ILO), that seek to regulate the maritime industry. They aim to ensure that workers in the sector have proper health and safety protection and that entitlement to minimum pay and conditions is respected. They also cover national obligations in relation to the inspection of ships.


Since its foundation in 1919, the ILO has adopted more than 65 international labour standards covering the maritime industry. In 2006, these were consolidated into a single Maritime Labour Convention. The convention recognises, as a fundamental right, the right of workers to freedom of association and collective bargaining. It also calls for the elimination of forced and child labour and for the eradication of discrimination in employment. The European Commission actively participated in the work towards the adoption of the 2006 Convention from its outset.

Europe’s seafarers have historically benefited from the ILO protections. However, specific protection at European level has also existed. Council Directive 1999/95/EC, on the organisation of the working time of seafarers, provides a mechanism for the verification and enforcement of compliance with the Convention in respect of ships calling at the ports of Member States. Its aim is to improve maritime safety, working conditions and the health and safety of seafarers on board. The directive put into effect an earlier agreement of the European Community Shipowners’ Associations (ECSA) and the European Transport Workers’ Federation (ETF) (formerly the Federation of Transport Workers’ Unions), that in turn reflected the provisions of ILO Convention No. 180, adopted in 1996, concerning seafarers’ hours of work and the ‘manning’ of ships. The agreement, and the subsequent Council directive, applies to seafarers on board every seagoing ship, whether publicly or privately owned, registered in the territory of any Member State and ordinarily engaged in commercial maritime operations. In addition, it imposes specific duties on Member States to monitor compliance with its provisions. To this end, Member States must:

  • carry out inspections on board ships, notably after having received a complaint in relation to the safe operation of the ship, shipboard living and working conditions or the prevention of pollution;
  • designate, as appropriate, Port State Control inspectors to carry out inspections on board vessels calling at Community ports;
  • verify shipboard working arrangements and seafarers’ records of hours of work or hours of rest;
  • impose a prohibition on leaving the port until the deficiencies found have been rectified or the crew is sufficiently rested.

Following the consolidation of the 2006 Convention, in July 2007, the Council of the European Union adopted a decision authorising Member States to ratify the ILO Maritime Labour Convention 2006 in the interests of the European Community, preferably before 31 December 2010. The adoption of the 2006 Convention, as well as the Commission consultation launched under Article 138 EC (now Article 154 TFEU), were the catalyst for the signing of a new joint agreement of the European social partners, ECSA and ETF, on labour standards in the maritime industry. This agreement, concluded on the first European Maritime Day on 20 May 2008, adopted the principal provisions of the 2006 Convention. It provides protection for seafarers excluded from EU legislation on training, health and safety, annual leave, working time and rest periods. It also covers accommodation, recreational activities, food and catering, medical care and welfare and sets a minimum age for ‘any person who is employed or engaged or works in any capacity on board a ship’. Following the signing of the agreement, on 2 July 2008 the European Commission proposed a Council Directive (COM (2008) 422 final) (120Kb PDF) to implement the terms of the agreement. The proposed directive will ensure that the agreement’s provisions are transposed into the laws of the Member States. The new directive will expressly amend Council Directive 1999/63/EC on the organisation of working time of seafarers and will also complement Council Directive 94/33/EC (24Kb PDF) on the protection of young people at work.

In January 2009, the Commission issued a Communication outlining its ‘Strategic goals and recommendations for the EU’s maritime transport policy until 2018’. The proposed strategic options are built on an all-inclusive approach, which is the basis of the new European Integrated Maritime Policy and reflects the core principles of sustainable development, economic growth and open markets in fair competition, as well as high environmental and social standards. The Council of Ministers approved, on 17 December, 2009 the proposal for a directive based on the agreement between ECSA and ETF aiming to transpose into Union law the provisions of the Maritime Labour Convention.

See also: child labour; Council of the European Union; fundamental rights; international labour standards


Please note: the European industrial relations dictionary is updated annually. If errors are brought to our attention, we will try to correct them.


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