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Crew Accommodation in Large Yachts

27 April 2021

Cutting through all the legalese in the MLC definitions, if you work on a commercially registered seagoing palace then you are a seafarer and are fully entitled to accommodation standards as per Title 3 of the Convention.

MLC was written by the ILO (International Labour Organization), in accord with its members, in a tripartite setting which included representatives of governments (MCA in the case of the UK), of shipowners (Councils of Shipping), and of seafarers (their Unions).  It was developed as a Bill of Rights for seafarers, covering all aspects of their welfare, such as employment contracts (SEAs), social security, leave, medical care, hours of work limits, and also decent and spacious accommodation.

MLC was entered into international law in 2006, and implementation was due to follow as soon as a given number of countries holding a given shipping tonnage had entered the IMLC provisions into their own national laws. There was no going back. Paradise on earth was awaiting seafarers after implementation of MLC. 

So, good question, why are you still living in a rabbit hutch eight years after MLC implementation?

Two reasons. The first is that MLC was not retrospective in its application, and would not apply to vessels which were pre-existing or were already in build before 20th. August 2013. The second reason, regarding  new yachts, is both very simple and very complex. The simple part you can see for yourself. Go out on deck with your cabin mate and tape out an area of 7 square metres, say 2 m x 3.5m, as specified in Standard A3.1.9 (h) (for officers, the requirement is 7.5 sq.m. per person).

Stand in that space and visualize the floor area of your shared cabin. Eureka, you understand. Stand up for full MLC rights, then try looking for owners who are prepared to build a 50, 80m or even 100m yacht with 7 sq.m. of floor space in each double cabin for crew, and 7.5 sq.m. per officer, with whatever volume is left over to be shared between machinery spaces and themselves. Obviously, MLC as written was totally impracticable in yachts, as far as accommodation standards are concerned.

Further, the procedure for any amendments to MLC covers three pages of the published Convention, and would obviously be a years-long process. The entire yachting industry was facing the potentially drastic consequences of an indefinite moratorium on any new builds which were intended to operate in the charter market. 

As soon as the PYA became aware of what lay ahead, a small work group of three PYA Council members took responsibility for pursuing the matter. We flew to Geneva to convey our concerns across the table with top ILO representatives at the ILO headquarter in Geneva.  

Following this meeting the ILO challenged us to complete two surveys that would help them in assessing any proposals put forward. Those surveys were quantative and qualitative. We flew to London to share our concerns with Nautilus, the seafarers' trade union. We brought the matter to the attention of yacht builders via The Superyacht Builders Association (SYBAss), the Worldwide Yachting Association (MYBA), and the International Council of Marine Industry Associations (ICOMIA), and we called our contacts at the Maritime & Coastguard Agency (MCA). 

Subsequently at various times we invited to Antibes representatives from the ILO, Nautilus and the MCA. We walked them round the interiors of a selection of yachts, sail and motor, traditional and modern, of various sizes, and we got their attention. 

Meanwhile the MCA was anyway starting to realize that although they had been very active in the drafting of MLC, the yachting sector had been totally overlooked, and the clock to implementation date was ticking. To confront the urgency, the MCA assembled a Large Yacht Sub-Group (LYS-G) with a mandate to study and address the impact of MLC on yachts <3000 gt. The LYS-G  was made up from  representatives from all the Red Ensign Group (REG), SYBAss, ICOMIA, MYBA (to represent yacht owners via their yacht management divisions), Nautilus (as representatives of the interests of seafarers in general) and the PYA (to represent yacht crew).

And this brings us to the complex part of the answer as to why the rabbit hutches are still being built into the palaces. 

We had to find a way to squeeze a quart into a pint pot. The only possible solution lay within Article VI of MLC, allowing “Measures which are substantially equivalent”. All parties in the work group dissected MLC Regulation 3.1 – Accommodation and recreational facilities, and contributed suggestions as to what might be deemed to be substantially equivalent to the legal MLC Standard.

ICOMIA wrestled with the reality of the space available in smaller yachts such as Sunseekers. SYBAss contributed their expertise in naval architecture and experience with spaces in larger yachts, and their appointed naval architect carried out the quantative survey for submission to the LYS-G while the PYA carried out the qualitative survey. REG surveyors made their technical design contributions.

The undersigned PYA council member was delegated to write the preliminary draft proposals, collate all additions and corrections in further drafts, and prepare the final draft.  The MCA acted as a moderator throughout, using their experience at the ILO to set out parameters for what would or would not be politically acceptable at ILO level. After requisite adjustments for approval by the MCA upper echelons, who had to convince the ILO that they were acting in good faith, the proposals for substantial equivalency were submitted, were accepted, and are embedded within the MCA Large Yacht Code. Similar work was done for another category, the Large Passenger Yachts.

You now occupy the outcome of the PYA’s sounding of the alarm bell and the LYS-G’s consequent work: living in old rabbit hutches in pre-existing yachts, and in much nicer rabbit hutches in yachts built post-implementation. 

However, the story does not end there. It was assumed that provision had been made to cover builders’ future needs for the very large yacht which were beginning to appear on the scene at that period. But since then, owners have been challenging builders with demands for super-mega-giga yachts of >5000 gt, and again there are problems with MLC compliance even at that size.

The reasons are twofold. Firstly, these huge yachts cannot operate safely or effectively as pleasure palaces without a significant number of crew. Secondly, even at their size, they remain the wrong shape for MLC accommodation. On a typical merchantman, the crew accommodation is contained in a rectangular box above main deck level. In yachts, the crew quarters are below main deck within a space which narrows significantly towards the bow and shrinks in width with distance below the main deck. 

Accordingly, the MCA has reinstituted the LYS-G, and the PYA is once again a member. We shall be contributing to the search for a solution to recognition of the ambitions of a new generation of ultra-wealthy owners and the effect of MLC strictures on realizing those ambitions. The first step will be for the PYA to participate in the distribution of a survey to record crew attitudes and preferences in various equivalency permutations of cabin layout. Once again the goal is to achieve an acceptable balance between the desirable and the practicable. 

Notwithstanding the outcome of the work of the LYS-G, there remains an issue which is peculiar to yachting and to no other sector of the shipping industry. In the merchant service, officers generally are in single-occupancy cabins and may exceptionally be permitted to have a shore-based partner with them during voyages, which is of no consequence to MLC compliance. Due to the nature of yacht accommodations and crew makeup, the sharing of a cabin between seafarers of different genders or different sexual orientations is not uncommon.

For MLC compliance it is essential that, given the number and genders of the crew on board, the overall number of cabins and of berths (beds) is sufficient for full separation of genders theoretically to obtain. If that requirement is met, then the actual occupancy of cabins and berths is not a matter for flag or Port State Control (PSC) to comment on or become involved with, as long as the shared cabin arrangements are acceptable to the parties concerned.

The situation often arises where a captain has a partner who is a crew member, and they share a cabin and a berth (i.e. bed) together. Of itself, this situation does not fall within the remit of MLC. However, what is mandated under MLC Standard A3.1.9(c) is that “a separate berth for each seafarer shall in all circumstances be provided”. In other words, in a strict interpretation of MLC< there must exist a berth on board for the captain’s partner within a cabin which is compliant with MLC or with the LY Code or LYP Code.

If at a given time the captain’s berth is a shared one, and all other approved berths on board are occupied, the yacht is not in compliance. The existence of an unoccupied nanny cabin, for instance, would not correct the situation if such cabin was not itself compliant with MLC or with the LY Code or LYP Code. Guest cabins would normally be more than compliant, but again if they were all occupied, they do not offer an acceptable alternative. 

The above situation would probably not be considered by flag during the design stage, as it is an operational matter. However, it could theoretically be challenged by a PSC officer as a major non-compliance, as it offends against an essential right under an MLC Standard. It could lead to a detention until corrected. In practice, as long as the yacht has a valid Maritime Labour Certificate and Declaration of Maritime Labour Compliance and there are no obvious causes for concern, a PSC officer will not investigate beyond sighting these Certificates. So it is a scenario not to lose sleep over, but which should be borne in mind by captains and managers so that a Plan B can be immediately implemented in the event of a PSC challenge. 

Captain Rod Hatch

ILO certified trainer of MLC inspectors and PYA Director Training (Deck & Engineering)

In consultation with John Cook (Lesia Group, Guernsey)

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