INTERNATIONAL TRANSPORT WORKERS FEDERATION
Flags of conveniance
Foc shipowners are people who, for a variety of reasons, all connected with making money, have chosen to give their ship a false nationality. Ships flying the flag of countries like Panama, Liberia, the Bahamas or Vanuatu, to name a few (see centre pages) have no real connection with those countries. The owner has simply chosen the flag from a wide selection on offer, and then chosen the nationality of the crew in the same way. The Foc countries do not enforce minimum social standards or trade union rights for seafarers. If they did, shipowners would soon lose interest in them. The countries from which the crew are recruited can do little to protect them, even if they wanted to, because the rules which apply on board are those of the country of registration. The result is that most Foc seafarers are not members of a trade union and for those who are, the union is often powerless to influence what goes on board the ship. Many seafarers working on Foc ships receive shockingly low wages, live in very poor on-board conditions, and work long periods of overtime without proper rest. They get little shore leave, inadequate medical attention, and often safety procedures and vessel maintenance are neglected (in many cases reported to the ITF, ships have been unseaworthy). In some of the worst cases, seafarers are virtual prisoners on the ship, unable to earn enough for repatriation home which the company demands they must pay.
This is where the ITF comes in. For the ITF, ships flying an Foc have a special status different from those flying a genuine 'national' flag, and ITF policy lays down that much higher minimum standards should apply to them. The ITF Collective Agreement lays down a very detailed set of working conditions standards as well as a wage scale for Foc vessels. Whereas shipowners' organisations argue that the minimum wage recommended by the International Labour Organisation (US$ 978 per month for an Able Seaman - see ILO story) should apply to all ships, ITF policy applies this absolute minimum only to genuine national flag vessels. To be acceptable to the ITF, Foc vessels should be covered by agreements which include much higher wage levels (1.550 USD for A.B. - TCC Agreement ). Many shipowners bitterly resent paying such wages. Seafarers who are hired to work on Flag of convenience vessels are often given strict instructions not to make contract with the ITF. Some are even made to sign legally binding contracts or loyalty in which they promise not to approach the ITF and which specify sanctions against seafarers or their families if they do so. There are also a number of crewing agents and owners who will sign an ITF Agreement, and then defraud their crews by ignoring the agreement /and paying lower wages), threatening the seafarers if they should report these practices to the ITF. This is often accomplished by the use of double bookkeeping where the crew are forced to agree to hand any back wages recovered by ITF or crew action to the company or have it deducted from their future wages, under the threat of action by unsympathetic authorities in their home countries. Shipowners, governments and crewing agents whose business is devoted to exploiting seafarers also make it their business to spread lies and slanders about the ITF and its Flag of convenience campaign. They accuse it of discriminating against seafarers from poverty line countries, of being "protectionist", and even of resorting to extortion and blackmail. These accusations are silly and false, of course, but they do show that the ITF is considered a major problem by those in the shipping industry who profit by exploiting seafarers. The ITF says that rich shipowners should not be permitted to pick and choose what laws they will obey and what wages they will pay. The ITF Standard Collective Agreement is designed, not just to provide a good income for the crews, but also to act as a disincentive to shipowners to flag out their ships in the first place. There is of course potential for disagreement between ITF seafarers' unions from the industrialised countries where the ships are owned and who see their members' jobs disappearing through flagging out, and those from poorer labour supplying countries. In the long run, however, the most important thing for seafarers worldwide is to be united against shipowner attempts to play one nationality off against another in search of cheaper sources of labour. A way forward for seafaring in developing countries is, the ITF believes, in joint ventures using national flag ships and including shareholdings by nationals of the country, not as sources of low cost labour which can be discarded as soon as another, cheaper, supply can be found.
How it works?
The conflicts and disagreements between ITF unions are worked out in open debate in the various committees and conferences of the ITF Seafarers' Section and in the annual meeting of the Fair Practices Committee (FPC) which is charged with the implementation of the Foc campaign. The FPC brings together representatives of both seafarers' and dockers' unions. This is important because it is the dockers who bear the burden of implementing the practical side, as opposed to the political side - lobbying national governments and international bodies to phase out the whole Foc system. The ITF Foc campaign depends crucially on the willingness of dockers, who get no direct benefit for themselves, to take solidarity action - including sympathy strikes and boycotts - in support of Foc crews which are not covered by ITF acceptable agreements. Although legal and practical obstacles are put in their way by shipowners and unsympathetic governments, this type of action takes place almost every week in some part of the world, and thousands of exploited seafarers have reason to be grateful for it. Shipowners and those who charter their ships know that if they don't have an "ITF agreement" they are at risk of action in many of the world's ports. Some are prepared to take that risk, but many are not, and the possibility that the crew may get in touch with the ITF makes many owners grant better wages and conditions than they would if the free market was the only factor involved. This has been clearly demonstrated in the most recent case of Eastern and Central Europe and the newly independent states of the ex-USSR. Shipowners were jubilant at the crumbling of the Eastern bloc and commercial opening-up of these countries, seeing great opportunities for cheap and well-trained crews. But the changes also saw the formation of independent and democratic trade unions. Many of Eastern and Central Europe's transport workers are now ITF members - seafaring unions from Hungary, Poland, Romania, the Baltic States, the Czech and Slovak Federated Republic, Bulgaria, Croatia and Slovenia and the former USSR have all been accepted into ITF membership, and ITF collective agreements based on the established benchmark for Total Crew Cost Agreements (TCCs - see P22) have been or are being negotiated on behalf of their members. Croatian trade unionists in the port of Rijeka have already shown their solidarity by enforcing an ITF agreement through boycott action - the ITF Campaign, as we approach the 21 st century, is growing in strength. In a cut - throat industry where a small number of individual shipowners get very rich by exploiting a large number of poor seafarers, the ITF exists to provide a "floor" in the labour market. We may not do the job perfectly, but we certainly have an impact, as the many letters we receive from seafarers testify. Whether they like us or loath us, there are few people in today's shipping industry who haven't heard of the ITF.
The fight against Focs from 1948 till today
The ITF was founded by European seafarers' and dockers' unions in 1896. Rotterdam dock workers were on strike, and British maritime union leaders answered their call for support by organising an international trade union body that co-ordinated practical solidarity with the strike. The ITF came into existence as a body designed to encourage practical support between transport workers - this remains the central principle of the federation. Soon after its foundation, the ITF grew from its seafarer and docker roots to embrace railway and road transpor4t workers. Since 1948 one of the most important things for the ITF has been the campaign against Flag of Convenience (Foc) shipping. The fact that the campaign has been underway for nearly half a century demonstrates its importance to maritime trade unionists and the fact that - no matter what our enemies may say - the ITF isn't going to give up.
First raised in 1933
ITF unions first raised questions of flag transfers to Panama as early as 1933. But the flagging out became a major threat to the world's seafarers after the end of the second world war. Following the post-war upswing in trade and plenty of cheap, surplus wartime shipping on the market, a number of US shipowners began to use the Panamanian register. By 1948 the Panamanian register had grown to over three million gross registered tons. Along with Honduras, and Liberia, these nations were referred to as the Panlibhon countries - later expnded, to include Costa Rica, as Panlibhonco.
1948 - the Foc campaign begins
The ITF Congress in Oslo in July 1948 was the beginning of the campaign against Flags of Convenience, a campaign that continues to this day. The ITF Seafarer' Section raised the idea of boycott action against the Panlibhon flags. The ITF Dockers' Section pledged their complete support and fullest co-operation. The ITF Congress in Stuttgart in 1949 refined the ideas behind the Foc campaign. Ideas which are more or less the same today. The plan of action was first to seek collective negotiations with owners of ships on the basis of defined minimum conditions. Only if these negotiations failed would boycott action be taken against owners who refused to apply minimum standards. The practical side of the ITF campaign had begun, and continues to this day.
The 1958 world boycott
The ITF Congress in Amsterdam in 1958 renewed the call for concerted boycott action against Panlibhonco owners who refused to sign agreements. Ten years after it had first been proposed (at the 1948 Oslo Congress), the ITF mounted a four day, worldwide boycott action against non-agreement Panlibhonco ships. It began at midnight on November 30, 1958 and ran till midnight on December 4. Between 300 and 400 ships were stopped. Of potential targets in port, the ITF calculated that 90 per cent of possible shipping had been hit. The action was a success in showing the shipping industry that ITF- affiliated unions were capable and willing to coordinate global industrial action. The action also made world trade union history, as the first time co-ordinated, international industrial action by trade unions was successfully carried out. But the price for many unions was heavy. Legal suits and punitive damages were common in many countries. The FPC meeting in London in 1959 laid down the principle that all agreements should be based on the ship's country of ownership rather than on the crew's nationality. In the wake of the four day boycott the percentage of world tonnage registered under Focs appeared to drop - from 13.6 per cent in 1959 to 10.9 per cent in 1962.
During the 1960s the practical side of the campaign was reduced. The ITF concentrated the campaign work on lobbying and working with governmental and international bodies. The 1960s was a period of economic expansion in most parts of the world. Trade expanded, and real standards of living for many workers improved. Flags of convenience still posed a threat, but many unions felt the problem could be solved through governmental action. Sadly, much of the international work came to nothing. International bodies (like the UN General Assembly) voted to condemn the "Foc system" but fine worlds meant little to the crews on these ships.
1971 - campaign relaunched
An important new chapter in the Foc campaign began in 1971. The campaign was renewed and revitalized not a moment too soon. By the end of the 1960s there was a big increase in Foc tonnage. In 1967 the Foc fleet had risen to over 28 million tons. In 1970 the Foc fleet was 41.1. million tons, and in 1972 56 million tons. By 1967, the Liberian register had passed the UK to become the largest in the world. The 1971 ITF Congress in Vienna devoted much time to the Foc question. Unions from Scandinavia demanded a higher level of activity in the campaign. The result of the Congress was that the campaign was reorganized and relaunched. The campaign had to be intensified and better coordinated. The idea of a "uniform" ITF Collective Agreement was now endorsed. With a few amendments, that Agreement remains in force today. The wage scale which forms part of the Agreement is calculated by taking a weighted average of the current wage rates in force in the main countries of real beneficial ownership of Foc ships.
The ITF Inspectorate
In 1971 the international Flag of convenience inspectorate was established with full time ITF inspectors employed by seafarers' and dockers' unions in key ports. These inspectors still provide direct contact between the crew of Foc ships and the ITF campaign. The Inspectors help secure agreements on ships which don't have them and check up on ships which do. Flag of convenience fleets have continued to grow throughout the 1970s and 80s. The scope of the ITF campaign has expanded too. There are now a larger percentage of ships covered by ITF agreements, and there are many more inspectors in more countries. The inspectors tell ships which are boycotted that they will be given a guarantee of unhindered passage, the ITF Blue Certificate, if they negotiate a collective agreement acceptable to the ITF. A new development on the shipping scene are the so called Second Registers, in countries like Norway (NIS), Denmark (DIS) and Germany (GIS). Ships sailing under the Norwegian NIS flag can employ third world crews. These crews are paid through local agreements in their home countries. The operation of second register ships is often similar to Foc registers. The ITF is opposed to second registers. However, it recognizes that in some situations affiliates, as a result of national government policy, may have no option than to accept such registers. In 1971 the international Flag of convenience inspectorate was established with full time ITF inspectors employed by seafarers' and dockers' unions in key ports. These inspectors still provide direct contact between the crew of Foc ships and the ITF campaign. The Inspectors help secure agreements on ships which don't have them and check up on ships which do. Flag of convenience fleets have continued to grow throughout the 1970s and 80s. The scope of the ITF campaign has expanded too. There are now a larger percentage of ships covered by ITF agreements, and there are many more inspectors in more countries. The inspectors tell ships which are boycotted that they will be given a guarantee of unhindered passage, the ITF Blue Certificate, if they negotiate a collective agreement acceptable to the ITF. A new development on the shipping scene are the so called Second Registers, in countries like Norway (NIS), Denmark (DIS) and Germany (GIS). Ships sailing under the Norwegian NIS flag can employ third world crews. These crews are paid through local agreements in their home countries. The operation of second register ships is often similar to Foc registers. The ITF is opposed to second registers. However, it recognizes that in some situations affiliates, as a result of national government policy, may have no option than to accept such registers.