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Know Your Rights as a Seafarer - Part 1

Sandra Jordaan speaks to Marien Sarriera from Yachts Mermaids on Yachting International Radio about why it is so difficult to understand what rights you have as a seafarer (specifically on private yachts under 500 GT).

Know Your Rights

Yachting is an international career. As such, there are many different rules and laws that apply to you and your employment on board. The first thing to take consideration of is the flag state of the vessel. This is the flag that is flown from the stern. Popular yachting flag states are the UK, Cayman Islands, Marshall Islands, Malta, Jamaica, UAE, US and the Isle of Man, to name a few. When you step on board a yacht, it is as if you are stepping into the country of the flag state, and that is the law that applies on board.

However, the port that the yacht is in will also have an impact on the laws that apply. This is why it is imperative to know what the local rules and regulations are in the countries that you visit. For example, if you are in an Islamic state, there might be a prohibition on drinking alcohol in certain places, or you might need to cover up if you are a woman. If you are found guilty of an offence, you might be deported and will surely lose your job.

Private yachts under 500 GT have very little regulation, and this is where the majority of abuse of rights occur (unpaid wages is one of the most common disputes). The Maritime Labour Convention applies to commercial (charter) yachts over 500 GT and is also known as the ‘Seafarers Bill of Rights’. This has enabled seafarers who work on these vessels to be afforded more rights, but at the end of the day, your rights will come down to what is in your employment contract, so it is essential that you read through this carefully.

Seafarer Employment Agreements

Before MLC and the introduction of Seafarer Employment Agreements (SEAs), crew contracts were called Crew Agreements. Crew who work on commercial vessels subject to MLC compliance must be employed under a SEA. Vessels not subject to the requirement to use SEAs may still require these on a voluntary basis, subject to Flag approval as long as they provide at least equal protection for seafarers as a Crew Agreement.

When you step onboard, you will need to sign two copies of the SEA (and the captain will sign on behalf of the vessel). You will keep one original copy, and the boat will keep the other. Please remember that if you have not signed it AND the captain has not signed it, the SEA is not valid, and you have no rights or recourse. This is the one piece of paper that will govern your employment on board so do not start work without it being signed and it is within your rights to insist on this.

As an absolute minimum, the following information is required relating to the individual seafarer, the employer and the terms and conditions under which the seafarer is to be employed:

  • The seafarer’s full name, date of birth or age, and birthplace

  • The vessel owner’s name and address

  • The place where and date when the seafarer’s employment agreement is entered into

  • The capacity in which the seafarer is to be employed

  • The amount of the seafarer’s wages or, where applicable, the formula used for calculating them

  • The amount of paid annual leave or, where applicable, the formula used for calculating it

  • The termination of the agreement and the conditions thereof, including:

i. If the agreement has been made for an indefinite period, the conditions entitling either party to terminate it, as well as the required notice period which shall not be less for the employer than for the seafarer

ii. If the agreement has been made for a definite period, the date fixed for its expiry

iii. If the agreement has been made for a voyage, the port of destination and the time which has to expire after arrival before the seafarer should be discharged

  • The health and social security protection benefits to be provided to the seafarer by the vessel’s employer

  • The seafarer’s entitlement to repatriation, including repatriation destination

  • Reference to the Collective Bargaining Agreement, if applicable

  • Any other particulars which national law may require

It is also important that you have a job description so that you know what you are responsible for. You might also sign a non-disclosure agreement and a drug and alcohol policy if these are not already included in your SEA.

Resolving complaints

Most vessels will have an onboard complaints procedure. If there is a very serious complaint, it is important to document it correctly. Start by writing down everything that took place in a journal at the end of each day and at the end of the entry, write down the date and time you completed that entry. It is even better to take a picture of it and email it to yourself. Remember that the longer you wait to record something, the less weight it will have.

For very serious complaints, you can log an official complaint with the captain if you do not feel that it has been handled correctly and ask them to make an official entry in the log book. They will have seven days in which to provide you with a response, after which you can take it up with the management company and DPA (if there is one). If the complaint is about the captain, you can also bypass the captain and go to the DPA or management company if you have one. Failing that you can also write to the Shipping Master of the flag state.

For Cayman Island flagged vessels you can log a complaint directly here:

For minor disputes, it is better to resolve these amicably on board if possible.

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