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Abbreviations and keywords

A CBA is a collective bargaining agreement. This is a document that outlines the conditions of work for seafarers in a particular company. The conditions of work are negotiated between the company and the union.

The union signs the CBA on behalf of the seafarers and the company signs as the employer. Both parties agree to comply with the regulations set out in the agreement. Once the document is agreed and signed, the regulations within it become the rules for both employees and employers.


You can request the latest copy of your CBA here: mail@nsu.org


Your CBA explains your conditions of work, such as pay, hours of work and sick pay

The competent authority is the minister, government department or other authority that issues and enforces regulations, orders or other instructions and the force of law for a certain provision. In this case, the MLC.

Not every country in the world has ratified the MLC. Those who have ratified the MLC need to have identified a competent authority to be response for the MLC and its implementation.

Seafarers have the right to report MLC violations to the competent authority.




​Flags of Convenience (FOC)

Today, it is very common for the owner of a ship to register the vessel in a different country. For example, a Danish shipowner may register their vessel in Panama.  

Often ships are registered in countries that have very low or no tax costs. This can give benefits to the shipowner, such as less taxes, lower crewing costs and less regulatory control.

When a ship uses a flag like this it is called a flag of convenience (FOC, for short).Two common flags of convenience you might recognise are Bahamas and Panama.

​ITF Flag of Convenience campaign

​The ITF believes there should be a genuine link between the real owner of a vessel and the flag the vessel flies, in accordance with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). FOCs make it more difficult for unions, industry stakeholders and the public to hold ship owners to account. The ITF has been campaigning against the FOC system for many years.

​By campaigning against FOCs, the ITF aims to...

  • Protect the conditions of seafarers
  • Attack sub-standard shipping, irrespective of flag
  • Recognise international minimum standards
  • Strengthen ITF affiliated unions

The key aim of the campaign is to get rid of the FOC system completely.

​ITF Inspectors

​At the frontline of the FOC campaign are the ITF Inspectors. These are experienced, qualified trade unionists who visit ships around the worlde. There are 128 ITF Inspectors in 57 countries.

ITF Inspectors visit ships and check that seafarers are being paid properly, that they have adequate food and living conditions and that safety and other requirements meet international standards. ITF Inspectors have the right to inspect a ship, look at records and even arrest a ship if they feel that it is necessary to safeguard seafarers.

In 2016, ITF Inspectors carried out 10,267 inspections and collected more than US$40 million in unpaid wages for seafarers.

FOC and the cruise industry

​Today, most cruise ships operate under a flag of convenience. However, since most cruise ships are covered by CBAs, conditions are usually much better. Therefore it is union officers and not ITF Inspectors who visit cruise ships. If you are on board a cruise ship and want to know when your next union visit is, please contact us here mail@nsu.org. Please tell us the name of the ship and cruise company.

You can read more about the Flag of Convenience campaign and ITF Inspectors on ITF's web pages. (Opens in a new browser window)

The ILO is the UN agency dealing with international labour standards. It is a tripartite organisation, which means it is made up in equal parts of representatives from governments, employers and workers (through trade unions like NSU).

The ILO develops and agrees Conventions that are agreed and signed by all three partner groups and are legally binding for members states

You can read more about on ILO's web pages. (Opens in a new browser window)

The IMO is the UN agency responsible for regulating shipping. Its main aim is to develop and maintain a regulatory framework for the shipping industry. It covers issues such as safety, environmental concerns and maritime security.

The regulations and Conventions at the IMO are agreed by the 170 governments that are members. Seafarers are represented here through trade union bodies, such as the International Transport Workers’ Federation (see below). NSU is a member of the ITF. 

The NSU is an affiliate of the ITF, a global union federation of approximately 700 unions from approximately 150 countries. The ITF uses its collective strength of its global affiliates to give seafarers a voice at an international level. The ITF has different industrial sectors, including one for seafaring.

The maritime unions that are affiliates of the ITF decide which unions should have agreements with which companies. They make these decisions based on the ownership and history of the company.

You can find out more on ITF's web pages. (Opens in a new browser window)

MARPOL is the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships.

The Protocol of 1978 was adopted in 1983 and was a response to a series of tanker accidents that happened in 1976 and 1977.

The Convention has regulations on oil pollution, sewage, garbage and other pollutants from ships.

​Read more about the Convention on IMO's webpages. (Opens in a new browser window)

The Miami Guidelines are designed to help ITF affiliated trade unions who negotiate with cruise companies. Originally published in 1994 and updated in 2011, they are now part of official ITF policy. The ITF unions who represent cruise ship workers meet regularly to discuss what changes need to be made to the guidelines and they are updated regularly. 

These guidelines are important as they highlight the priorities for unions signing CBAs, such as changes to MLC or other international conventions.

The current guidelines are under review at the moment. We will publish the new guidelines here once they are agreed.


One of the most important Conventions for seafarers is the Maritime Labour Convention, also known as the MLC. The MLC was agreed at the ILO in 2006. Its purpose is to set minimum standards of working and living conditions for seafarers on board ships.

According to the Convention, all seafarers are covered by the MLC with a few exceptions:

  • ships navigating exclusively in inland waters, close to the coast, in sheltered waters or areas where port regulations apply
  • fishing vessels
  • ships of traditional build (such as junks)
  • warships and naval auxiliaries

The MLC describes a seafarer as any person who is employed, engaged or working in any capacity on board a ship. This includes hotel and catering staff on cruise ships.

The MLC sets minimum standards on conditions of employment, accommodation, recreational facilities, food and catering, health protection, medical care, welfare and social security protection. You can read more about the MLC on the Seafarers' Rights web page. (Opens in a new browser window)

The MLC is a useful tool to protect seafarers from exploitation. It sets minimum standards across the shipping industry. However, as a result of union negotiation, the standards contained in CBAs are usually better than the MLC. For example, the MLC says that the maximum length of a contract at sea should be 12 months and contracts covered by the NSU CBAs are usually 8 months or less.

Here is a short film about the MLC:

SOLAS is the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea, 1974. It was first adopted in 1914 in response to the Titanic disaster. It sets standards and regulates such areas as fire protection, carriage cargo and life-saving devices.

You can read more about SOLAS on the IMO web pages. (Opens in a new browser window.)

STCW is the International Convention on Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping for Seafarers, 1978. The latest amendments were agreed on in 2010 as ‘The Manila Amendments’.

A trade union is an organisation formed to protect and improve the working conditions of a specific group of workers. These workers are represented by the union together so that they have a stronger voice when they speak to their employer. Through its leadership, the union negotiates with the employers on behalf of those it represents. This is called collective bargaining. The NSU negotiates with companies on behalf of seafarers.

The main aim of a union is to improve and maintain conditions at work. This could include negotiating salaries, hours of work, length of contracts, health and safety regulations and much more.

​Trade unions also assist individual workers. If you have a problem at work, need advice or just information and support, you can contact us any time. The best way to do this is by email: mail@nsu.org


  • Beware of human traffickers

    24.05.2024 Read more

  • 3rd Cruise Seminar in Croatia a success!

    13.05.2024 Read more

  • Read the results of our survey on bullying/harassment & sexual harassment

    13.05.2024 Read more

More news
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