The International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) has added seven countries to its list of flags of convenience (FOC). These are countries which take registration fees but then typically avoid any of the responsibilities that go with being a flag state.
The flags to be added are:
- Cook Islands*
- Sierra Leone
- St Kitts & Nevis*
- Tanzania (Zanzibar)
(* = have ratified the Maritime Labor Convention)
The majority of ship registrations in the newly added states are taken from owners with no link whatsoever to that country. They are exploiting a loophole in international law so they can employ cheap labor and avoid taxes.
“What flags of convenience countries do is morally irresponsible,” said David Heindel, chair of the ITF Seafarers’ Section. “They all take the registration fees but do not have the will or the means to ensure the wellbeing of the seafarers who operate the vessels. The crew-change crisis is the perfect example of the havoc the FOC system creates. When becoming a flag state, a large responsibility must be accepted along with it. Ticking the boxes is not being responsible. Too many seafarers end up suffering so that ship owners can trim a few dollars from their crew cost.”
Abandonment cases made worse
One major example where seafarers suffer in this dysfunctional system is when ships are abandoned by their owners. If a shipping company goes bust or cannot pay its bills it will struggle to look after the seafarers on its ships.
Crew members may find themselves trapped on board for months or even years, while legal wrangles continue. Sometimes no-one thinks to provide them with basics like food, water and fuel.
The ITF and its team of 134 coordinators, inspectors and union contacts continue to assist seafarers in these types of situations. They make sure they have basic amenities, work to get the seafarers home and recover unpaid wages. But all too often they find the FOC scheme gets in the way.
“For more than 70 years the ITF has fought against this crazy system,” said Steve Trowsdale, the ITF Inspectorate Coordinator. “Many flags of convenience countries (including four of the newly listed) ratify the Maritime Labor Convention which is designed to protect seafarers. But in practice, those countries simply ignore the MLC, even when we write to them demanding action.”
The ITF fully supports the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) position that there should be a genuine link between the ship owners and the country they register their ships in. However, with the vested interests involved, it is proving hard work to get ship owners and flags of convenience to adopt the genuine link principle.