“Sailorman” “He went sailing” “She ‘dey on a ship” are all phrases that relate to seafarers or individuals who are employed or work onboard a ship.

When you are at sea, the question that many ask is: which laws apply on that ship when it leaves the country or while it is at sea? The answer lies in where the ship is registered.

When a ship is registered in a country, that country allows the ship to fly its flag. The country the ship is registered in becomes known as the “Flag State” whereas the ship becomes known as the “flagged vessel.” Registration of a ship gives it the “nationality” of the country in which it is registered. The laws that apply to that ship are, in most circumstances, the laws of the Flag State.

So if a vessel flagged in Saint Vincent and the Grenadines (SVG) sails out into the Atlantic Ocean beyond national jurisdiction or passed national maritime zones then the laws that apply will be the laws of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines (SVG).

SVG has one of the biggest ship registries in the world although not many of our registered vessels come to SVG.

This understanding of international law is based on the International Convention on the Law of the Sea, 1982 or “LOSC” or “UNCLOS” as it may be referred to. This article will focus on seafarers or the brave men and women that for many months at a time go to sea to earn a living.

If you are such a person or know such a person, it is important to be aware that you have particular rights on board this ship as a seafarer.

This information is general and not legal advice as your circumstances may be treated differently. Always seek advice from a lawyer or, for general knowledge, from your Maritime Administration, seafarer unions or consulate.

Remember that the laws of a flag state apply to a ship regardless of the location of the ship and despite your nationality; you are entitled to the protection of the laws of the flag state. It may be helpful to think of an SVG-registered ship as a floating part of SVG, for some limited legal purposes. If you are a Vincentian working on a foreign-flagged ship always be aware of what flag your ship is flying.

When an SVG ship enters the port of, for example, Trinidad and Tobago, Port of Spain. Then that state is known as the “Port State.” The Port State can exercise certain powers over the ship whilst it is in port. Normally, the authorities do not intervene in the internal matters of a ship unless there is a dispute or an infringement of law. For example, if a Ghanaian-flagged ship were to come to SVG and they are not paying you as part of the crew; you can complain and cause a Port State inspection.

In SVG, if you have a legal claim, for example, for unpaid wages you have access to something called a “maritime lien” (even if you do not have a contract), which can, on the threat of penalty by the court, stop a ship from leaving.

There is a terrible practice that goes on in SVG and the wider Caribbean. It is employing individuals on ships without giving them contracts. Under the Maritime Labour Convention, to which SVG has acceded to, and the Shipping (Maritime Labour Convention) Regulations 2017, this is illegal. Do not become employed or remain employed without some form of documentation. If you are not paid and you need to go to court it will make your case considerably more difficult.

Your contract will state what your rights are as between you and your employer. They are not complicated and not difficult to draft. If you remember nothing from this article remember that it is important that you have a personal copy of your contract of employment, that you read it and that you know what rights are contained in it.

Any ship that employs seafarers without contracts and needs help to draft MLC contracts should seek immediate assistance in doing so.

Working at sea is a very rewarding experience and even more rewarding when you know your rights.

Chevanev A.Y Charles is a UK- trained lawyer Called to the Bar in the United Kingdom, Grenada as well as Saint Vincent and the Grenadines. He holds a Masters’ degree in International Maritime Law from the International Maritime Law Institute (IMLI Malta). He is a consultant, contract drafter, legislative drafter, a mediator, and a lecturer. You may contact him with questions or comments at templestoke@gmail.com.