Maritime law and Human rights- Right of Seafarers in the World Shipping Industry

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Maritime law and Human rights- Right of Seafarers in the World Shipping Industry

Written by Chhajed Ruchita Ishwar Sunita

Maritime law and human rights intersect in complex ways, particularly when it comes to the rights of seafarers in the global shipping industry. Seafarers, who play a crucial role in international trade and the movement of goods across the world, face a unique set of challenges and vulnerabilities. This article explores the rights of seafarers under maritime law, with a focus on some relevant cases that highlight the issues they encounter.


The maritime industry is the backbone of global trade, with more than 80% of goods being transported by sea. This massive global enterprise relies on the dedication and hard work of seafarers, who are essential in ensuring the smooth operation of the shipping industry. However, despite their vital role, seafarers often find themselves in precarious situations, facing a wide range of issues related to their rights, safety, and well-being.

Seafarers’ Rights under Maritime Law

Seafarers’ rights are primarily protected by a combination of international and domestic laws, conventions, and regulations. These legal instruments address various aspects of seafarers’ working conditions, including their safety, living conditions, and access to basic human rights. Some of the key aspects of seafarers’ rights under maritime law include:

A. Safety at Sea: The International Maritime Organization (IMO) established the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) to ensure the safety of ships and seafarers. SOLAS sets standards for the construction, equipment, and operation of ships to minimize risks at sea.

B. Working Conditions: The Maritime Labour Convention (MLC), 2006, is a comprehensive international treaty that governs seafarers’ working conditions. It covers aspects such as minimum age, employment agreements, working hours, rest periods, and access to medical care.

C. Wages and Repatriation: Seafarers are entitled to receive their wages promptly, and the Maritime Labour Convention also outlines the process of repatriation in case of abandonment. Employers are obligated to ensure that seafarers can return home at the end of their contracts.

D. Living Conditions: The Maritime Labour Convention establishes minimum standards for living conditions on board ships, including accommodation, food, and recreational facilities, to ensure the well-being of seafarers during their time at sea.

E. Healthcare: Seafarers should have access to medical care while at sea, and the Shipowners’ Liability (Sick and Injured Seafarers) Convention, 1936, mandates that shipowners cover the costs of necessary medical treatment for sick or injured seafarers.

F. Access to Justice: Seafarers have the right to seek legal redress for grievances through their respective countries’ legal systems, and various international conventions provide mechanisms for dispute resolution.

Despite the existence of these legal frameworks, seafarers often face challenges in enforcing their rights, and several cases illustrate the difficulties they encounter.

Relevant Cases Highlighting Seafarers’ Rights Issues

  1. MV Iceberg 1 (2010-2012): The MV Iceberg 1 case is a notable example of seafarers’ rights violations. The vessel was hijacked by Somali pirates, and the crew endured a harrowing 1,179 days in captivity. During this period, the seafarers faced extreme physical and psychological hardships. This case highlighted the need for greater international efforts to combat piracy and to secure the safety of seafarers.
  2. MT Orkim Harmony (2015): The MT Orkim Harmony, a Malaysian-flagged oil tanker, was hijacked by pirates off the coast of Malaysia. The crew was held hostage, and the ship’s cargo was stolen. This case underscored the importance of ensuring the security of seafarers in high-risk areas and the need for prompt action in response to piracy incidents.
  3. ITF vs. Viking Supply Ships (2016): In this case, the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) took legal action against Viking Supply Ships, a shipping company that had failed to pay the wages of its seafarers for several months. The case emphasized the importance of holding employers accountable for wage-related violations.
  4. COVID-19 Pandemic (2020-present): The COVID-19 pandemic had a profound impact on seafarers’ rights. Many seafarers found themselves stranded on ships for extended periods due to travel restrictions and crew change difficulties. This situation exposed the need for more efficient crew change protocols and the importance of recognizing seafarers as essential workers.

Challenges and Areas for Improvement

While international maritime laws and conventions provide a strong framework for protecting seafarers’ rights, several challenges persist:

  1. Enforcement: One of the key challenges is the effective enforcement of these rights. In some cases, unscrupulous shipowners and operators may evade their obligations, leading to disputes that seafarers struggle to resolve.
  2. Crew Change: The pandemic has brought to light the need for smoother crew change procedures. Delays in repatriation and crew rotation have detrimental effects on seafarers’ well-being.
  3. Safety and Security: The ongoing threat of piracy and other security concerns in certain regions can put seafarers’ lives at risk. Stronger international cooperation is needed to combat these threats.
  4. Mental Health: The isolation and stress of long periods at sea can have severe effects on seafarers’ mental health. Addressing mental health issues is a growing concern in the industry.
  5. Fair Wages and Working Conditions: While international conventions provide guidelines, disparities in wages and working conditions still exist across different ships and companies.


The rights of seafarers in the world shipping industry are vital to ensure the safety, well-being, and fair treatment of those who play a central role in global trade. International and domestic maritime laws and conventions provide a solid foundation for protecting these rights, but challenges persist in terms of enforcement and compliance. The cases mentioned, such as the MV Iceberg 1, MT Orkim Harmony, ITF vs. Viking Supply Ships, and the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, illustrate the complexities and vulnerabilities faced by seafarers.

Efforts to improve seafarers’ rights should include stricter enforcement mechanisms, streamlined crew change procedures, enhanced security measures, and a focus on mental health support. The maritime industry, governments, and international organizations must work together to ensure that seafarers are granted the rights and protections they deserve as they continue to facilitate global trade and commerce. In doing so, they can uphold the principles of human rights within the unique context of the high seas.


  1. International Maritime Organization (IMO): The IMO is the United Nations agency responsible for regulating shipping. Their website provides access to a wealth of information on maritime law, conventions, and publications related to seafarers’ rights. Website
  2. Maritime Labour Convention, 2006: This convention, often referred to as the “Seafarers’ Bill of Rights,” sets out comprehensive rights and protections for seafarers. It covers areas such as working conditions, wages, and safety. Maritime Labour Convention, 2006
  3. United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS):UNCLOS is a foundational treaty that governs the use of the world’s oceans and is relevant to seafarers’ rights. UNCLOS
  4. International Labor Organization (ILO):The ILO provides valuable resources on labor-related issues, including those affecting seafarers. ILO Maritime Labor Standards
  5. International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF): The ITF represents seafarers’ interests worldwide and offers publications and reports on various aspects of seafarers’ rights and working conditions. ITF
  6. Seafarers’ Rights International (SRI): SRI is an organization dedicated to researching and promoting the human rights of seafarers. Their website includes reports and publications on seafarers’ rights. SRI
  7. Human Rights at Sea: This organization focuses on the explicit human rights abuses at sea. They produce reports and case studies highlighting the challenges seafarers face in terms of their human rights. Human Rights at Sea
  8. United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights:While not specific to seafarers, these principles apply to companies involved in the shipping industry. They provide a framework for respecting human rights in business operations. UN Guiding Principles
  9. The Seafarers’ Bill of Rights: A Comprehensive Guide for All Seafarers:This book by David Cockroft provides a detailed overview of seafarers’ rights and the legal framework that protects them. Book Reference
  10. SeafarerHelp: SeafarerHelp is a free, confidential, and multilingual helpline for seafarers. They provide assistance with various issues, including rights violations. SeafarerHelp

Keywords: Maritime law and Human rights, Maritime law and Human rights in India