By Yukti Makan, Symbiosis Law School, Pune.

The International Labor Organization (ILO) is a specialized Agency of the United Nations, established in 1919. It is a tripartite organization, in which representatives of governments, employers and workers take part with equal status. The Seafarers’ Identity Convention was originally formed in 1958, but was later revised in 2003 (No. 185) as a result of the discussions held in the International Maritime Organization (IMO). The Convention was modified to review the procedures and measures to prevent terrorism and also for the safety of crew, passengers and the ships. The Convention No. 185 was adopted expediently for the enhancement of security measures, after the September 2001 events.

The Convention became a treaty, when it was ratified by all its members and will also be binding on them. As of 2015, the Convention has been ratified by 15 states. The main aim behind revising the earlier convention was to incorporate the inter-operable biometric template, covering fingerprint data capture, template generation and bar code storage. The ISO and the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC) form the specialized system for worldwide standardization. National bodies that are members of the ISO or IEC participate in the development of international standards through technical committees that are established by the respective organization to deal in the respective matters.

The main concern of modifying this Convention was to facilitate the transition and transfer of seafarers on foreign territory, which was also the key subject of this Convention. This can only be achieved through international cooperation and coordination.

The International Labor Organization and the International Maritime Organization have taken substantive measures for enhancing the maritime security globally and also to protect the ships, ports, sailors and seafarers from terrorist activities and other illicit activities. The efficient sea trade is a critical component of the world economy and so is its security.

Seafarers’ Identity Documents Convention, 2003 (No. 185) is an International Labor Organization Convention, which was originally made in 1958, but was revised in 2003 and finally came into force on 9th February 2005. This provides for a seafarer identity document which is intended to enhance maritime security whilst facilitating shore leave and the professional movement of seafarers. 

The Convention 185 is a modification of Convention 108 that was formed in 1958, as it facilitates the temporary admission of genuine seafarers to foreign territory for shore leave, transmit, transfer and repatriation. It additionally includes extensive innovations and introduces modern security features in the materials used in the new seafarers’ identity document, its biometric features and for facilitating verification of the document. It shall be printed as numbers in the PDF417 bar code conforming to a standard to be developed.

There are certain minimum mandatory requirements for issuance processes and procedures, including quality control, national databases and permanent national focal points to provide information to border authorities and a system of international oversight to ensure that ratifying countries are complying with the requirements of the Convention. 

The conference in which the Maritime Labor Convention, 2006 was adopted also pointed out the difficulties that were being faced by the seafarers for leaving the shore in certain countries and had urged the Governing Body to request the Director-General to contact all member States and remind them of the importance of the speedy ratification and implementation of Convention No. 185 and to invite member States to promote decent work for seafarers. The conference also highlighted issues such as the granting of shore leave or access to shore-based welfare facilities, which (where they exist) are to be “available for the use of all seafarers, irrespective of nationality, race, colour, sex, religion, political opinion or social origin and irrespective of the flag State of the ship on which they are employed or engaged or work”

The reasons behind modifying the 108 Convention were as follows:

  1. To support the Governments in strengthening the security measures against the terrorist activities and also to protect the Members’ economic interests in having their seafarers employed by shipowners.
  2. To facilitate commercial shipping and also to regain the confidence in the international maritime industry.
  3. Promote safety, security and basic rights of Seafarers in the conduct of their profession.
  4. Improves and facilitates access control to ports and ships
  5. Taking safety and security measures for the passengers and crew of the ship on the high seas and also to protect them from terrorist illicit attacks.
  6. Minimizing administrative delays and also contributing to seafarer convenience and ship-owners’ cost savings.
  7. Introducing modern security features for the SID.
  8. Requiring a record of each SID issued to be contained in a national database, with the related information being internationally accessible.
  9. Requiring issuing Governments to have processes and procedures which are subject to international oversight and ensure the reliability of the identification of the holder of the SID while protecting the holder’s dignity and privacy.
  10. Enable them to pool and share their technology, expertise and resources, where appropriate.

All this can only be possible if there is sufficient international cooperation and also by enhancing the security measures.

The next generation ILO seafarers’ ID uses a bar code technology to store biometric data and support the ILO’s international interoperability requirements of the SID. The format of storing fingerprint in the biometric profile is in the PDF417 barcode format. The biometric system is used for increasing the strength of the binding between the SID and the seafarer who holds it.

The ILO Convention 185 has a certain set of preconditions that are to be satisfied before giving the license to the seafarers. It was assumed by the framers that while taking fingerprints the seafarers will not perceive fingerprint capture and verification to be an invasion of their privacy or an offence against their dignity. This was also very well laid down in Article 3 of the 185 Convention.

For enrolling the Biometric, an issuing agent is required to enter the personalization information into the enrollment system. A fingerprint should be captured from the index finger of each hand. In case the index finger is damaged and the fingerprint cannot be taken, then a fingerprint from another finger or thumb will be captured. The SID-issuing agent shall specify which fingers were enrolled at the time of biometric enrolment, and this information shall be recorded in the header of the biometric template to be stored on the SID bar code.

India also ratified this convention and became a part of it. This is a boon for the Indian Sailors as they can move freely in the international waters without any restriction. The identity card that is issued to them have all the features to be verified electronically and is recognised world wide.The hassle free movement in the international waters will also increase employment opportunities for the Seafarers. India has over 1.8 lakh seafarers, just around 7 per cent of the global share of sailors. The security issues that are presently faced by the seafarers will also be solved and taken care of.


Convention No. 185 is potentially a very effective Convention designed to serve modern border control and security interests, while also respecting seafarers’ rights. It combines and balances security interests with the welfare of seafarers and the facilitation of world shipping. With respect to security interests, it provides for SIDs with essential modern security features and is unique in its establishment of minimum standards for national SIDs issuance procedures as well as the international oversight of compliance with those procedures, and also in its establishment of international cooperation in the sharing of data on issued SIDs through national databases and national focal points that can be contacted on a round-the-Clock basis.