While millions of North American workers are suffering the consequences of globalization, it is worth noting that the concept first gained steam in the maritime industry.
After World War II, many American shipping companies were able to evade U.S. taxes, wages and safety standards by registering their ocean-borne fleets en masse in nations that had no maritime infrastructure or history. For a slight fee, they were able to fly the flags of such nations as Liberia, Panama and Honduras. As a result, international standards have been debased, as has any meaningful oversight.
What was pioneered in America has spread to most other traditional shipping nations. This regime, known as the Flag of Convenience (FOC) and runaway-flag system, has had many unfortunate consequences, mainly in the living and working conditions of mariners worldwide.
Today, civilian mariners are among the world’s most exploited workers. To combat this, the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF), a London-based confederation of nearly 700 transportation-related unions from 153 countries, fashioned a worldwide grassroots campaign to restore some justice to the industry. The Maritime Trades Department, AFL-CIO has been a partner in this fight since our founding in 1946. And while it has been an uphill struggle, there have been numerous successes.
The first thing that the ITF did was to define what an FOC registry is. As the organization notes, it is when “beneficial ownership and control of a vessel is found to lie elsewhere than in the country of the flag the vessel is flying.”
After that, the ITF laid out a two-pronged campaign to restore some justice to the industry by devising a political strategy designed to establish, by international governmental agreement, a genuine link between the flag a ship flies and the nationality or residence of its owners, managers and seafarers. At the same time, it has waged an industrial campaign designed to ensure that seafarers who serve on runaway flag ships, whatever their nationality, are protected from exploitation by shipowners.
Over the past 60 years the ITF’s maritime affiliates, a number of whom are associated with the MTD, have developed a set of policies which seek to establish minimum acceptable standards applicable to seafarers serving on FOC vessels. The policies form the basis of an ITF Standard Collective Agreement which sets the wages and working conditions for all crew on runaway flag vessels irrespective of nationality. All FOC ships covered by an ITF agreement are issued an ITF Blue Certificate by the confederation, which signifies its acceptance of the wages and working conditions on board. About a quarter of all FOC vessels currently are covered by ITF agreements, thus giving protection to more than 123,000 seafarers.
Restoring integrity to the maritime industry has never been more important. Transparency and accountability are essential. Their lack puts international safety at risk.
The MTD fights for fair labor standards and safe working conditions for all mariners. It is for all the reasons listed above that the MTD, its affiliates and its Port Maritime Councils will continue to give strong support to the ITF’s FOC campaign.