Four pillars for safety, environment, training, working conditions

Shipping is globally regulated like no other industry

The international legal framework for all marine and maritime activities is established by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). However, four main conventions are recognised as the pillars of the international regulatory regime for shipping, the so called “four pillars of international maritime law”, which are

1.    SOLAS (International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea)
2.    MARPOL (International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships) and
3.    STCW (Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping for Seafarers) at that time was
4.    MLC 2006 (Maritime Labour Convention). 
Safety, environment, training, working conditions: All of the conventions share the goal of continuously improving the quality of the international maritime shipping sector by establishing uniform standards. With MLC 2006, SOLAS, MARPOL and STCW, maritime shipping is the only industry in the world with such a dense and effective global regulatory framework.

The four pillars at a glance

MLC, Maritime Labour Convention

This convention was adopted by the ILO member states in Geneva on 23 February 2006 and entered into force on 20 August 2013. As a result, uniform minimum standards for working and living conditions on board sea-going vessels now apply worldwide – regardless of the flag the ship is flying. These minimum standards cover a wide range of issues, such as working and rest hours, medical fitness and care, accommodations and leisure time, and the training of seafarers. Even states that have not ratified the convention cannot circumvent its standards as soon as they call at ports of states that have ratified the convention. 

If violations are identified during port state inspections, severe sanctions can be imposed – ranging from fines to detention of the ship. In this way, the MLC effectively puts a global stop to social dumping in merchant shipping. It also thereby boosts the competitiveness of German shipowners, as comparatively high social standards were already anchored in German law beforehand, such as with the former Seafarers’ Act of 1957. 


SOLAS, International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea

The International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) of 1974 is the UN convention on maritime safety. In response to the sinking of the “RMS Titanic”, a conference was convened on 12 November 1913 to draw up an international minimum standard for safety on board merchant vessels. The outcome of this conference was the initial version of the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS). 

Since then, there have been several fundamental amendments. The drafting and adoption of the fourth version of the convention (1960) was the first major undertaking of the Inter-Governmental Maritime Consultative Organization (IMCO, renamed IMO in 1982) after the organisation, which had already been founded in 1948, began its work in 1959. The current and fifth version of the SOLAS convention (known as “SOLAS 74”) dates from 1974 and is made up of 12 chapters. Additional amendments (supplementary protocols) address more recent needs. They were and continue to be used to incorporate technical updates and improvements into SOLAS 74, but also to remedy shortcomings that have become apparent as a result of shipping accidents. The most recent supplementary protocol, which entered into force on 1 January 2020, takes into account the findings of the investigation into the “Costa Concordia” accident.

SOLAS is divided into 14 chapters dealing with a wide range of issues, such as stability, fire protection, life-saving equipment, radio communications, safety of navigation, and safety measures for ships operating in polar waters. The international convention of 1974 was signed by the Federal Republic of Germany in London on 18 February 1975 and brought into force in Germany by an ordinance of 11 January 1979.


MARPOL, International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships

The International Convention for the Prevention of Marine Pollution from Ships (MARPOL) of 1973, as modified by the Protocol of 1978, is a globally applicable environmental agreement for maritime shipping. The IMO is responsible for handling the tasks of the secretariat. The Marine Environment Protection Committee (MEPC) of the IMO serves as the Conference of the Parties to the convention, which can adopt modifications and amendments to it. Together with the 1974 SOLAS convention, the MARPOL convention forms the legal basis for environmental protection in maritime shipping and therefore the foundation of global efforts to minimise pollution of the marine environment.

While the texts of the convention and the protocol itself only regulate the general framework, the stipulations that are relevant in practice are found in their annexes. Thus, while Annex V regulates pollution from garbage from ships, Annex VI aims to reduce air pollution from maritime shipping and contains, for example, the special regulations for the so-called emission control areas (ECAs), in which stricter limits apply to the sulphur content of ship fuel. Annex VI also regulates the (steadily increasing) requirements related to the energy efficiency of ships.


STCW, Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping for Seafarers

The convention, which sets binding minimum mandatory standards for the training of seafarers worldwide, was adopted by the IMO in 1978 and entered into force for the Federal Republic of Germany in 1984.

Establishing international standards by mutual agreement is particularly meant to safeguard human life, but it also aims to protect physical assets at sea and the marine environment. In pursuit of these goals, the wide range of national certificates of competency are in a gradual process of harmonisation, and the minimum standards are being regularly reviewed and adjusted, if necessary.

The convention applies to seafarers working on ocean-going vessels flying the flag of a state for which the convention has entered into force. But it also applies to ships from other flag states when they call at the port of a so-called “STCW state”. The agreement consists of both the convention and the code. The practical elements are laid out in an annex – with Part A covering the mandatory elements, and Part B the recommended ones.

In eight chapters, the annex sets out the mandatory rules on the necessary training content, such as mandatory minimum requirements for the master, rules on radio communication, special training requirements for personnel on certain types of ships (e.g. tankers, ro-ro passenger ships and other passenger ships), tasks related to emergencies, occupational safety, medical care and survival functions, and rules on watchkeeping.

The maritime training landscape is subject to constant development and change, and the applicable rules and recommendations are regularly revised and adapted in response to these changing circumstances. Amendments to these conventions can then be found in their annexes.