Seaman and sailors lacked legal protection against deplorable working and living conditions on board ships before 1920. With the passing of the Merchant Marine Act of 1920, commonly referred to as the Jones Act, seamen finally had safety and security for their rights. Senator Wesley L. Jones of Washington proposed the law as a means of maintaining a viable working force for the seas, bolstering the growth of both foreign and domestic marine commerce.
The Jones Act is specifically a cabotage law, governing the transport of goods and passengers between two points within the same country. The law requires that seventy five percent of crewmembers must be United States citizens. Repair work on the vessels is also controlled by the Jones Act. No more than ten percent of the hull and superstructure of the ships can be fixed by foreign repair. This aids in preventing American ships from refurbishing their structure at overseas shipyards with foreign built steel.
In terms of seaman’s rights, the Jones Act protects sailors by allowing them to claim damages from their employers for negligence on the part of the ship owner, captain, or crew. Unseaworthiness of ships is also a legal cause for litigation according to the Jones Act. To qualify as a seaman and to be eligible for protection under the Jones Act, the United States Supreme Court ruled in the case of Chandris, Inc., v. Latsis that a worker must spend more than thirty percent of his or her time in the service of a vessel on navigable waters.
Although the Merchant Marine Act of 1920 has helped many seamen work in an environment of improved safety, criticisms do exist. The restrictions on shipping and working conditions cause the price of moving goods and passengers between ports to skyrocket. Critics of the act label it as protectionism, an economic policy restraining free trade. Other negative components of the Jones Act include damage to the shipbuilding industry. The United States is unable to compete in the international shipping market as foreign crews are willing to work for a fraction of the wages of American crews.
Occasionally the Jones Act is waived for extenuating circumstances. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, the Jones Act was temporarily waived for foreign vessels carrying oil and natural gas for a two week period in 2005. Declining oil production encouraged a waiver for the Chinese ship Tai An Kou to pull an oil rig to Alaska.