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ILO Aims to Boost Rights for Seafarers

Talks began on Tuesday to clinch a Bill of Rights for the world's 1.2 million seafarers, many of whom work in unacceptable conditions, the International Labor Organization (ILO) said.

The Maritime Labor Convention would lay down stringent rules on working hours, minimum age, and health and safety standards, and require ships to prove their compliance.

The three-week talks at the ILO, a United Nations agency, opened with a minute's silence to honor hundreds of people who died when an Egyptian ferry sank in the Red Sea last week, as well as to honor seamen who have lost their lives while at work.

"The objective of this convention would be to eliminate sub-standard shipping. It would provide an incentive to good ship owners and a disincentive to the unscrupulous," Cleopatra Doumbia-Henry, Director of the ILO's international labor standards department, told a news briefing.

"This is the first time that an ILO convention will require that there be a certificate of labor compliance," she added.

It would require vessels over 500 gross tons on international voyages to carry a five-year labor certificate issued by its flag state and also make periodic inspections. Foreign port authorities can detain a vessel not in conformity for inspections, which can be lengthy and costly.

The 100-page draft convention has been negotiated over more than four years. Some 1,000 delegates from 100 member states, employers' and workers' groups are taking part in the talks. The text requires a two-thirds majority for adoption.

"Our desire would be to see this convention come into force within three years, at the latest," Doumbia-Henry said. It would be enforced against vessels whether or not the member state concerned had ratified, she added.

Some 85 percent of world trade is carried by sea, and most seafarers are from developing countries, mainly in Asia, according to the ILO.

"They need to ensure that they have and enjoy decent work, and that their rights can be respected irrespective of the country from which they come or the ship on which they work," Doumbia-Henry said.

She said 90 percent of maritime accidents were caused by human error, often through fatigue. Jean-Marc Schindler, Director-General of maritime affairs for France, who serves as president of the ILO talks, said the convention would allow seafarers to lodge a complaint in any country. "That would be an enormous change," he said.