The recent case of Wilson -v- Secretary of State for Transport is one of the first UK cases to deal with the application of the Maritime Labour Convention (MLC) and to consider in detail the provisions relating to seafarer complaints for alleged breaches of the MLC. James Williams considers the impact of this decision on yacht owners and operators.

The MLC obliges all shipowners to implement on-board complaint procedures to deal with any seafarer complaints alleging breaches of the MLC. It also prohibits victimisation of a seafarer for making such a complaint.

This requirement is incorporated into English law via the Merchant Shipping (Maritime Labour Convention) Survey and Certification Regulations 2013 (the ‘UK Regulations’). In relation to UK-flagged ships, they provide that a seafarer must not be subjected to a detriment for lodging a complaint and also that a seafarer may complain to the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) about an alleged breach of the MLC.

Mr Wilson raised a number of grievances complaining that the ‘core values’ of his employer (Princess Cruise Lines) were not being upheld. Mr Wilson was replaced on a tour of duty in order to allow the employer to consider these grievances. He was subsequently dismissed.

Mr Wilson argued that his dismissal amounted to victimisation under the UK Regulations on the basis that he had alleged breaches of the MLC and had been dismissed as a result. He complained to the MCA, which undertook a lengthy process to investigate his complaint.

The MCA broke the complaint down into three simple questions: (i) had Mr Wilson raised initial grievances alleging breach of the MLC; (ii) if so, had he suffered a detriment; (iii) if so, had he suffered the detriment as a result of having made a complaint alleging breach of the MLC?

In the MCA’s opinion, Mr Wilson’s complaint fell at the first hurdle, in that his grievances related to the employer’s alleged failure to adhere to its own ‘core values’ rather than an alleged breach of the MLC. That being the case, the next two questions did not need to be answered and his complaint to the MCA was not upheld.

Mr Wilson applied for judicial review of the decision but the High Court agreed with the MCA’s analysis and dismissed the application.

Having now gone through the complaint process and faced the scrutiny of a subsequent judicial review, it is likely that the MCA will be well equipped to deal with any future complaints from seafarers; a rigorous and time-consuming process is likely to follow. The shipowner was fortunate in this case that Mr Wilson’s initial grievances did not concern a breach of the MLC and so the relevant provisions of the UK Regulations were not engaged. Had this not been the case, the outcome may have been different and the shipowner and/ or master may have been guilty of a criminal offence punishable by a fine and/or imprisonment.

Whilst this case concerned a cruise line operator, the UK Regulations are equally applicable to all UK-flagged yachts which operate commercially. Likewise, other flag states that have ratified the MLC will also have similar provisions applicable to commercially operated yachts. This is a timely reminder of the need to have proper complaint procedures in place and to tread carefully when following them, so as to avoid allegations of victimisation. If in doubt, always seek advice when applying the procedures.