Flags of (in)convenience
Why global unions want these scuttled by Johann Earle
Stabroek News
November 25, 2003

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Global trade unions have submitted a proposal to the United Nations (UN) for the protection of seamen against Flag of Convenience (FOC) ship owners and this is to be debated later this year.

This initiative forms part of the war, which the International Transport Workers' Federation (ITF) has waged against these ship owners, who fly FOCs after they have registered their vessels in foreign ports to avoid complying with tax, safety and labour regulations. According to the ITF, a ship carries the nationality of the state whose flag it flies and is subject to its laws. But FOCs allow for ships to employ crews on very low wages and under very poor conditions.

It said that what is equally appalling is the fact that such states are willing to rent their flag to just about anybody.

The ITF said that each new FOC country promotes itself by offering the lowest possible fees and the minimum of regulations, which allow ships to flout health, safety and environmental standards.

Founded in 1896, the ITF is a federation with an international following of over 600 transport workers trade unions in over 135 countries.

According to the ITF, FOC countries are allowed to ignore the obligations of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). This convention requires flag states to exercise their jurisdiction and control in the administrative, technical and social matters over ships which fly their flags. Because of the non-compliance with many of the conventions governing safety and environmental awareness, many of these 'rust buckets', as they are often called, cause accidents such as oil spills. One vivid example is the loss of the Prestige off the coast of north-west Spain in November of 2002.

That ship, which had been registered in the Bahamas and had been heavily repaired, spilled most of its cargo of 77 billion tonnes of oil. As a result of the spill, the fishing and shellfish industry of the nearby region of Galicia on the Spanish Atlantic coast was shut down.

ITF regional representative for the Caribbean, Carvil Duncan, told Stabroek News that Guyana does not have the conditions to be an FOC country, but any ship owner can come and register his ship if he chooses to do so.

He said that Barbados is the most popular Caribbean FOC state.

Duncan said that there were Guyanese seamen working on FOC vessels overseas, but they have signed ITF agreements which should guarantee them fair treatment. He said that they received complaints of accidents involving Guyanese on board the FOC vessels and cited two cases where Guyanese crew-members were injured. He said that in both cases the ship agents took the injured persons to hospital and later arranged for their repatriation to Guyana. They are yet to receive their benefits.

Highlighting the ITF's local role, Duncan cited the three-year-old case of the Eternal Love, a ship which the ITF had to sell so that the crew - abandoned and left for dead on board - could have been sent home. He said that there were doubts as to the ship's registration as the captain had no certificates to show.

Writing in the ITF bulletin, General Secretary, David Cockroft, states that shipping is an industry which is characterised by a culture of secrecy and deceit.

It hands the competitive advantage to large companies which don't care and it penalises ship owners that safeguard their crews. He said too that when these dangerous ships sink, the owners hide behind the brass plates that declare each ship a separate company.

Owners declare bankruptcy after pocketing the insurance money, leaving crew-members unable to claim compensation.

According to the bulletin, the ITF's activities in the maritime industry are spearheaded by the campaign of seafarers' and dockers' unions around the world against the transfer of ships to FOC ports to evade national laws and national trade unions conventions.

ITF seeks to establish a genuine link between the nationality of a ship and its owners and have set minimum standards for wages and conditions of employment.

ITF states that it only approves collective agreements if they have acceptable working conditions and a minimum wage scale, currently based on US$1,300 a month for an able seaman, including the cost of other employment and other benefits.

The bulletin states that seafarers who are hired to work on FOC ships are often given strict orders not to make contact with the ITF. According to the publication, some are even made to sign contracts in which they promise not to do so.

There are even some employers who will sign an ITF agreement and then defraud their crews by paying lower wages - a practice known as double bookkeeping.

Many of the ships which come to Guyana are registered in countries on the ITF's list. Most of the oil tankers bringing fuel to Guyana are registered in Panama, one of the largest FOC countries. Liberia and the Bahamas follow as the other leading FOC countries.

Caribbean countries on the FOC list are Antigua and Barbuda, St Vincent and the Grenadines, Jamaica, Belize, Bermuda, the Netherlands Antilles and the Cayman Islands.

Other world ports named are Malta, Sao Tome and Principe, the Marshall Islands, Sri Lanka, Tonga, Vanuatu, Gibraltar, Cyprus, Bolivia, Burma, Myanmar, Equatorial Guinea, Lebanon, Honduras, Comoros and Mauritius.

Seafarers working on FOC ships who have problems with their pay or any other grievance about the way that they are treated can contact the ITF directly at mail@itf.org.uk.