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Flagging out – the long tail of convenience

22 January 2020

Corrosive flags of convenience have undermined national flags, says Nautilus general secretary Mark Dickinson. We must support flag states that exercise effective control

News reached my desk over the New Year that Stena Line's latest new build Stena Estrid has, without much fanfare, quietly changed flag from the UK to Cyprus.

Stena Estrid is the first of three Ropax vessels being built for the company's Irish Sea routes, with sister ships Stena Edda and Stena Embla expected to commence operations in the spring of 2020 and early 2021. I guess we can expect them to join their sister in Limassol.

Is this another blow to post-Brexit Britain, a symbol of wider maritime malaise in the UK, or merely a reflection that no one really cares what the flag state is anymore?

Hot on the heels of Maersk, CMA-CGM, P&O Ferries and Carisbrooke Shipping (see March 2019 comment) this is surely another painful blow to the UK's continued aspiration to remain a strong and growing maritime nation. It is made more painful because Stena, like P&O Ferries, has opted in favour of the Cyprus flag of convenience (FOC) ship register (and an EU member state).

As far back as the 1930s the International Labour Organization (ILO) was concerned about ship registers such as Panama and Liberia, when predominantly Greek and US shipowners joined them, seeking to avoid strong seafarer trade unions, rising employment costs and labour regulations. Lack of transparency over ship ownership and low or no taxes also appealed.

In 1948, fearing the erosion of national standards, the International Transport Workers' Federation (ITF) launched a campaign to eradicate 'FOCs' and drive ships back to national flags. Over 70 years later, despite the ITF's best efforts, FOCs have grown to now represent over 55% of the world fleet. The ITF FOC list now includes a total of 35 ship registers including Red Ensign Group members Bermuda, Cayman Islands and Gibraltar. Many also feature on the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s (OECD) list of 'uncooperative tax havens'.

FOCs also spurned the growth of international and second registers, drove the deregulation of national flags such as the Netherlands and led the UK Ship Register to ease eligibility requirements in a vain attempt to appeal to a much broader shipowner community.

International law (UNCLOS) requires registers to maintain a 'genuine link' between the flag of the vessel and the shipowner. This ensures the flag states can, as the Maritime Labour Convention (MLC) states, 'effectively exercise jurisdiction and control' over their ships. With FOCs that rule is waived, meaning flag states cannot effectively control or regulate ships flying their flag.

Flag states therefore rely on port states to do their dirty work, and that is why we now have Port State Control. It is why we have the International Safety Management Code. It is why flag states contract out to classification societies. It is why flag states woo shipowners, calling them 'customers'. It is why the International Maritime Organization (IMO) is criticised as being slow to respond to global developments.

FOCs at their corrosive best are why we needed the MLC, SOLAS, MARPOL and STCW – because national flags were utterly defenceless against what the maritime author Ian Urbina refers to as 'the Outlaw Ocean', undermined and compromised by the growth of FOCs. What we have witnessed over the last century is the re-regulation of the shipping industry at the global level.

The choice of flag state is crucial, I hope I am not alone in thinking so.

International law requires registers to maintain a 'genuine link' between the flag of the vessel and the shipowner Nautilus general secretary Mark Dickinson
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From the general secretary January 2020

Corrosive flags of convenience have undermined national flags, says Nautilus general secretary Mark Dickinson. We must support flag states that exercise effective control.

As we start the new year, we recommit to being an action-focused, modern and dynamic union, driven by a clear organising strategy, says Nautilus general secretary Mark Dickinson

As we enter a new decade in which disruption is the name of the game and technology transforms our world, shipping is at the centre of the evolving storm.

The industry is at the heart of our globalised just-in-time economy. Every hour of every day, thousands of vessels are on the oceans and rivers connecting countries and keeping global trade moving. But while shipping's importance remains unchanged, the way it works – and the ways in which its people work – are facing transformation.

Nautilus International has worked long and hard on our four-year Strategic Plan and 2030 Vision adopted at the General Meeting in October 2019. It puts in place a proactive response to ensure that we remain relevant, responsive and financially sustainable for the future.

This year will be critical for the delivery of this vision. We are focused on developing new ways of working, new ways of organising, new ways of campaigning, and new ways of servicing our members that demonstrate our continued relevance.

We will keep our organisation at the cutting edge, responding to globalisation's challenges with, for example, the Nautilus Federation of like-minded ITF affiliated unions providing a worldwide support and assistance network based on cooperation and collaboration.

We look to the future with optimism, but we face a double whammy. The demographics of our membership mean that around one-third of our members will reach retirement age over the next decade. Despite the renewed investment in skills in the UK and NL the numbers coming into the shipping industry are falling short of the numbers leaving. It's very clear that we can't continue as we are. If that sounds stark, it's meant to.

The 2030 Vision is our response – a positive vision for the future based not on fear of the unknown, but a clear track of hope. Because we don't just face risks and challenges, we also face opportunities, and we are determined to seize them.

Our 2030 Vision will strengthen our recruitment efforts, continuing our growth in the superyacht and windfarm sectors, capitalising on the potential in inland waterways and river cruises and seizing the opportunities offered in fishing, through the new ILO Convention 188.

Our 2030 Vision will transform the way we work – we will relaunch Nautilus as an action-focused, modern and dynamic union and professional organisation, driven by a clear organising strategy, that is innovative, creative and, above all, proactive and professional.

The 2030 Vision is our blueprint for the future – a sustainable future that ensures that the scale of the challenges faced by Nautilus is matched by the scale of its ambition. Nautilus is proud to say that Wherever You Are So Are We. That will continue to be but we will also focus greater efforts on supporting you throughout your career journey in a positive and aspirational way.

Happy New Year!

 

From the general secretary February 2020

A long term vision is needed if the Maritime Labour Convention (MLC) is to become a 'passport to decent work for seafarers', says Nautilus general secretary Mark Dickinson, who is also a vice-chair of the International Transport Workers' Federation Seafarers' Section. He discusses some strategies for improvements to the upcoming MLC amendments on living and working condition due to come into force later this year

The Maritime Labour Convention (MLC) has now been ratified by 96 countries, representing 91% of the world fleet by gross tonnage, and there are good prospects of reaching 100 signatories soon.

The MLC has been a remarkable success and truly is the fourth pillar of global regulation alongside STCW, SOLAS and MARPOL.

In around 12 months I will be attending the 4th meeting of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) Special Tripartite Committee (STC). This is the committee provided for in Article XIII of the Maritime Labour Convention 2006 (as amended) that is charged with developing amendments so that seafarers’ living and working conditions are continuously improved. So far three sets of amendments have been agreed in 2014, 2016 and 2018 – the latter will come into force in December this year.

In my capacity as one of the vice-chairs of the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) Seafarers’ Section I have been asked to act as the spokesperson for the Seafarers’ Group at the STC meeting.

If confirmed in due course, it will be my task to put forward the views of the seafarer unions and to engage in negotiations with the shipowner and government groups to hopefully agree further amendments to the MLC. Work has begun with discussions both at ITF and jointly between ITF and the International Chamber of Shipping (ICS).

I have been advocating for a longer-term vision and a strategy for improvements to the MLC. At the heart of the convention is an understanding that minimum standards must be enhanced. The MLC has always been a journey not a destination, ‘a passport to decent work for seafarers’ as Nautilus honorary member Dr Cleo Doumbia-Henry has said.

It is the obligation of all those associated with the MLC to advance the current minimum standards, but we need to know where we want to be in 10, 20 and 30 years and beyond.

It is therefore time for the tripartite parties to focus on truly enhancing seafarer protection so that the MLC becomes ever more meaningful and appreciated by seafarers.

One of the improvements Nautilus will be calling for is to the working and rest hour regimes. Why are seafarers still working over 90 hours per week when technological advances could potentially reduce workloads to much more manageable levels?

Instead of improving the work life balance for seafarers, I can anticipate many shipowners arguing that technological advances will deliver cost savings through reduced numbers of seafarers onboard, leaving those who remain to continue working outrageously long hours. The current fad for ‘wellbeing’ to be addressed by introducing awareness training is not a silver bullet but ending the deeply engrained culture of long working hours surely is.

It is also time for greater powers to enforce the ILO minimum wage.

Currently contained in Code B and non-mandatory, the minimum wage should be made enforceable alongside the existing and fundamental right of seafarers to engage in collective bargaining. This would be entirely consistent with the United Nations Sustainability Goals (specifically #8) for which so many politicians and chief executives trumpet their support. With the current focus on corporate social responsibility this is the least we should expect.

There is much talk in maritime circles about what the future will look like as the fourth industrial revolution unfolds. It is high time that the human element – the seafarer – was the forethought and not constantly playing catchup. Only then will we all be able to create more and better jobs in a sustainable shipping industry.

From the general secretary March 2020

With the world in the midst of a global health pandemic, general secretary Mark Dickinson expresses concern about the impact on the shipping industry and calls for special measures to protect seafarers.

In the 1930s, the MP Lady Nancy Astor suggested to the UK parliament that seafarers should be compelled to wear yellow armbands when ashore to warn others they were potential carriers of venereal disease.

One would like to think the world has moved on since then, but sadly the outbreak of the Covid-19 coronavirus has once again seen seafarers bearing the brunt of this global pandemic. We have already witnessed ships being denied entry to port, shore leave being denied, crew changes prohibited, pre-employment screening of seafarers, and flag states requesting exemptions from the strict requirements of the Maritime Labour Convention (MLC) so that crew can be denied repatriation. Worryingly, some of these actions are in breach of international conventions on human rights and the facilitation of maritime traffic.

I cannot recall a time when such an unexpected development has resulted in such frenetic activity, bordering upon panic, across the entire world. As the list of countries with outbreaks of the Covid-19 virus grows longer by the day, the numbers of confirmed infections spiral by the hour. And with an escalating rate of morbidity in excess of 3% of those infected, this alarm is surely justified.

I am genuinely concerned about the impact on seafarers and their ability to work, join and leave their ships. Reports of the selfless action of crews on vessels such as the Dutch-registered Westerdam and the UK-registered Diamond Princess – which have many Nautilus members onboard – left me feeling humbled.

Such huge cruise ships, each with thousands of passengers and hundreds of crew members in lockdown, in a medical emergency that ultimately, in the case of the Diamond Princess, led to the reported deaths of six passengers. It is hard to imagine what it would be like for all concerned, not least for the maritime professionals who continue to do their duty in such harrowing circumstances.

These developments remind me of last month’s comment about the MLC, because it stipulates a 12-month maximum tour of duty, reduced to 11 months onboard as a seafarer is entitled to paid annual leave to be taken within the year. That standard, and the experience of the response to viral outbreaks at sea, must now surely be considered in any forward-looking strategy to improve the MLC.

While it is good to see the International Labour Organisation and the International Chamber of Shipping producing guidelines that underline the need to prioritise the health and safety of crew, the impact of the Covid-19 outbreak on our members and the shipping industry is growing by the day.

Global trade is slowing, events, meetings, conferences are being cancelled and all but essential travel is cut. Travel restrictions are being placed on over-70s.

All of this is having a devastating impact on the ferry and cruise sectors, raising serious questions about the impact on the jobs of our members. Business as usual is most definitely not on the agenda for now and the immediate future, but any response by governments much be measured, targeted and not
damage the industry or jeopardise the employment of our members.

With 90% of everything moving by sea to do so would be an act of utmost folly.

Seafarers as ever will be among those facing the consequences of this pandemic as one thing has not changed over the centuries: germs follow people, people follow trade and facilitating trade is our business.

The critical role of seafarers needs to be recognised and special measures introduced now to ensure the shipping industry can continue to keep the world moving. That must include reassurances over job security, extra medical protection and testing and the facilitation of crew rotation and repatriation.

And let’s not forget amid all this frenetic activity that the rights of seafarers under international conventions must be respected.

From the general secretary April 2020

With the world in the midst of a global health pandemic, general secretary Mark Dickinson expresses concern about the impact on the shipping industry and calls for special measures to protect seafarers

In the 1930s, the MP Lady Nancy Astor suggested to the UK parliament that seafarers should be compelled to wear yellow armbands when ashore to warn others they were potential carriers of venereal disease.

One would like to think the world has moved on since then, but sadly the outbreak of the Covid-19 coronavirus has once again seen seafarers bearing the brunt of this global pandemic. We have already witnessed ships being denied entry to port, shore leave being denied, crew changes prohibited, pre-employment screening of seafarers, and flag states requesting exemptions from the strict requirements of the Maritime Labour Convention (MLC) so that crew can be denied repatriation. Worryingly, some of these actions are in breach of international conventions on human rights and the facilitation of maritime traffic.

I cannot recall a time when such an unexpected development has resulted in such frenetic activity, bordering upon panic, across the entire world. As the list of countries with outbreaks of the Covid-19 virus grows longer by the day, the numbers of confirmed infections spiral by the hour. And with an escalating rate of morbidity in excess of 3% of those infected, this alarm is surely justified.

I am genuinely concerned about the impact on seafarers and their ability to work, join and leave their ships. Reports of the selfless action of crews on vessels such as the Dutch-registered Westerdam and the UK-registered Diamond Princess – which have many Nautilus members onboard – left me feeling humbled.

Such huge cruise ships, each with thousands of passengers and hundreds of crew members in lockdown, in a medical emergency that ultimately, in the case of the Diamond Princess, led to the reported deaths of six passengers. It is hard to imagine what it would be like for all concerned, not least for the maritime professionals who continue to do their duty in such harrowing circumstances.

These developments remind me of last month’s comment about the MLC, because it stipulates a 12-month maximum tour of duty, reduced to 11 months onboard as a seafarer is entitled to paid annual leave to be taken within the year. That standard, and the experience of the response to viral outbreaks at sea, must now surely be considered in any forward-looking strategy to improve the MLC.

While it is good to see the International Labour Organisation and the International Chamber of Shipping producing guidelines that underline the need to prioritise the health and safety of crew, the impact of the Covid-19 outbreak on our members and the shipping industry is growing by the day.

Global trade is slowing, events, meetings, conferences are being cancelled and all but essential travel is cut. Travel restrictions are being placed on over-70s.

All of this is having a devastating impact on the ferry and cruise sectors, raising serious questions about the impact on the jobs of our members. Business as usual is most definitely not on the agenda for now and the immediate future, but any response by governments much be measured, targeted and not damage the industry or jeopardise the employment of our members.

With 90% of everything moving by sea to do so would be an act of utmost folly.

Seafarers as ever will be among those facing the consequences of this pandemic as one thing has not changed over the centuries: germs follow people, people follow trade and facilitating trade is our business.

The critical role of seafarers needs to be recognised and special measures introduced now to ensure the shipping industry can continue to keep the world moving. That must include reassurances over job security, extra medical protection and testing and the facilitation of crew rotation and repatriation.

And let’s not forget amid all this frenetic activity that the rights of seafarers under international conventions must be respected.

From the General Secretary May 2020

One of the issues that has been driven home during the global pandemic is that seafarers are an invisible force to most ordinary people. Frankly, some politicians don’t seem to be able to see them either.

It was short sighted to lock out or lock in the workers who are responsible for bringing 90% of everything that is needed to sustain us. The pandemic has revealed how exposed many nations are to how the shipping industry is structured. Our resilience as nations has been shaken by this crisis.

The pandemic has highlighted the failings of the ship registration, crewing and employment policies of way too many shipowners. Flag states from the more exotic locations have failed to provide support, offshore employment contracts and labour supply policies have exposed the weaknesses of the current system. It all looks a mess and to make matters worse we even have some shipowners exploiting the pandemic to attack our members' terms and conditions of employment.

If any good can come of this global health pandemic, when we return to normal, we must have a thorough and comprehensive review of the structure of our shipping industry and its employment practices. Covid-19 has revealed how utterly unprepared the shipping industry was, and we cannot allow that to happen again.

All of that is for another day. Throughout this crisis I have remained immensely proud of our members – maritime and shipping professionals, for how they have demonstrated their fortitude and professionalism. They really do ‘supply the world’ to coin one of the welcome hashtags doing the rounds on social media that has highlighted their key worker status. To quote another, #notallsuperheroeswearcapes. Of course, that one is from Nautilus, it is my favourite!

I looked up in my dictionary the definition of a professional. It states simply 'a person engaged or qualified in a profession' but I believe it is so much more than just the recognition of status or qualifications. To me it is a state of mind as much it is a recognition of hard fought for qualifications. It is how you go about the tasks you are trained and qualified to perform.

Our members deliver 90% of everything globally and run the lifeline services that support our communities. We know they do it without any thanks or recognition. That’s got to change. Your professionalism must not be taken for granted, certainly not by governments.

During the current outbreak, thankfully many countries declared that seafarers are key workers, and this has helped highlight the vital role that our members perform.

They cannot work from home – although they are used to remote working in an isolated workplace. They work until the job is done, safely and to the highest standards. They are now being required to extend their tours because their replacements cannot join their vessels. Governments must ensure that this is a short-term measure and they need to urgently turn their attention to getting crew changes moving again. Taking our members’ professionalism for granted would be a mistake.

It has been my honour in the past month to join with my neighbours every Thursday evening to praise from my front door with my family, our vital public sector workers. But I have also been cheering and clapping for my #transportheroes – our seafarers and all maritime professionals alongside all the other key workers who are demonstrating their professionalism and ensuring we are all safe and well during this unprecedented and frankly scary time.

Once this pandemic has passed, and it will, Nautilus and all its staff will continue to fight for our members to be given the recognition that they deserve.

Recognition that befits the professionalism they have demonstrated and continue to demonstrate. To #myheroes, thank you.

From the general secretary June 2020

In the face of dire long-term economic warnings, it is now more important than ever to work together for the benefit of all, says Nautilus general secretary Mark Dickinson

The true scale of the economic damage that Covid-19 has done to global and national economies is becoming clear.

The World Trade Organization (WTO) is forecasting a 32% decline in global output and that means lost jobs. According to a recent survey by the European Community Shipowners' Associations the hardest hit sectors will be cruise, ferry and offshore services – key areas for our members.

In shipping we are facing hundreds of jobs losses – from Ardent Maritime to P&O Ferries to Vroon – the impact is being felt by our members across all branches. The scale of potential job losses is significant – over 600 redundancies have been announced in the past month alone.

These jobs are not for sale. We must be robust in our response, ensure that our members are supported and redundancies resisted. I have asked our industrial teams to do their utmost to protect the employment of our members wherever they can.

The support of a strong trade union is especially important at times like now. It may be a cliché, but we are stronger together and we certainly need to be strong now. It is pleasing therefore that membership is growing with hundreds of maritime professionals recognising the need for our unique services.

I have been continuing my support for the work of the International Transport Workers' Federation (ITF) and European Transport Workers' Federation (ETF). This has focused on coordinating crew welfare, working with the International Labour Organisation (ILO) on seafarers' rights and taking part in discussions with the International Chamber of Shipping (ICS) to agree crew change protocols. These were immediately supported by the International Maritime Organization (IMO) and quickly circulated for attention by member states.

I have taken part in talks between ITF and the Joint Negotiating Group (JNG) within the International Bargaining Forum (IBF). The ITF had previously reluctantly agreed to two 30-day periods of crew contract extensions under the IBF Framework Agreement but when asked for a third time we refused. Instead, we said governments should be given an extra 30 days to implement crew changes in accordance with the industry protocols circulated by IMO. This should mean governments finally get crew changes moving and recognise that seafarers are key workers who deserve to get home or back to work.

I have also been busy lobbying the government to extend financial support to UK seafarers. A survey of UK members of Nautilus revealed that up to 11,000 seafarers could be without financial support because their employer does not operate UK PAYE for tax and national insurance purposes. As such their jobs cannot be protected under the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (JRS) nor will they receive grants to cover lost income under the self-employed scheme. Some face a triple whammy because they can't work, cannot claim the same financial support as other UK workers, and face an unexpected tax bill.

Last month with the help of TAPiit we live streamed the first virtual meeting of the Council. The use of technology is a core strand of the Union's 2030 Vision as is our communications becoming 'digital first'. This has enabled us to respond to developments much quicker than in the past. Our website has become the main source of information for our members, and the wider maritime community. In the current pandemic we are witnessing unprecedented traffic to our site. One story on seafarer certificates for travel was viewed over 42,000 times.

This investment in technology has had the added benefit of allowing us to keep working in support of our members despite the challenges of the lockdown. It has also helped us to have a greater and more frequent contact with governments and industry to resolve issues in a tripartite way.

I hope this spirit of tripartism continues long after the lockdown ends, when we return to normal. In the meantime, stay safe.

From the general secretary July 2020

The unfolding crew change crisis has exposed deep inconsistencies from governments keen to kickstart economies while seafarers remain trapped onboard, says Nautilus general secretary Mark Dickinson.

The deadline for the effective implementation of crew changes, in accordance with agreed protocols developed by the industry and endorsed by the International Maritime Organization (IMO) and the International Labour Organization (ILO), has passed. 15 June was the day set by the industry for governments to have implemented those protocols and get our seafarers safely home and their replacements back to work.

There are signs that crew changes are taking place especially in Europe, and I am pleased that the UK and the Netherlands are leading the way. However, like the fairground game of 'whack a mole', as one country loosens its lockdown another tightens it as the virus spreads in a wave across the globe. And of course the dire warnings of a second wave are on the minds of those charged with formulating their national policy responses to Covid-19.

But, as some countries look to kickstart their economies, it feels like getting tourism going via international air bridges is more important to other governments than getting seafarers home. As a recent article in Lloyd's List noted, this is 'morally unacceptable' and the ongoing isolation of seafarers 'inhumane'.

The unfolding crisis is at long last grabbing the media's interest. The unfortunate and deeply saddening reports of suicides and hunger strikes, and the potential threat of crew strikes, have finally woken people to the inconvenient truth that the world relies on seafarers for 90% of everything. It feels far from alarmist to warn we could soon see empty shelves in our supermarkets and queues at petrol stations.

I am proud to say that Nautilus is playing a key part in the global mobilisation. The International Transport Workers' Federation (ITF) is standing by with its worldwide network of inspectors to support crews who refuse to extend their contracts further.

Nautilus and 21 other ITF-affiliated unions called on our members to exercise their professional judgement in the interests of safety. The International Federation of Shipmasters' Associations (IFSMA) followed Nautilus taking the unprecedented step of sending a Notice to all Shipmasters calling on them to register their complaints ashore with the authorities and shipowner in line with the Maritime Labour Convention and International Safety Management Code.

If those complaints are not resolved, IFSMA was clear, shipmasters should refuse to sail their ships; for if they did not, and there was an incident, they may face criminalisation by the very same authorities that block crew changes.

The level and the extent of the outrage does not end there. The leaders of the United Nations, the IMO and the ILO have all been unequivocal in their support for seafarers and in their demand that states facilitate safe crew changes immediately to relieve the horrors unfolding onboard ships globally. The line between denial of workers' rights and forced labour is a fine one.

This is an unprecedented moment. As David Osler in Lloyd's List wrote, 'There are many lessons to be learnt from this unprecedented episode. But perhaps the biggest one is that crews should never again be made to carry the can for the shockingly apparent global collective paralysis of the authorities.'

The major flag states, most of which are flags of convenience (FOC), have shown how the abuse of the ship registration system has undermined the governance and structure of the industry. These states' lack of responsibility or ability to fulfil their obligations under the current system has been brutally exposed by the pandemic.

Let's build on the consensus we have forged in this time of crisis and bring this FOC system down. We should rebuild shipping with the priority on support for bona fide flag states that take their responsibilities and obligations under international law seriously and are able to effectively regulate shipping and protect seafarers and the environment.


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