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What's the problem with flags of convenience?

11 March 2024

Nautilus has always been a supporter of the ITF campaign against flags of convenience, and the Union has pledged to redouble its efforts to end the practice since a resolution on the subject was adopted at its 2023 General Meeting. Sarah Robinson takes a closer look at the flag of convenience system, and explains why maritime trade unions want to see the back of it

Long ago, countries were proud to have their own merchant fleet. Commercial vessels owned in a particular nation would be on that nation's shipping register and fly that nation's flag.

However, during the 20th century, changes were made to many shipping registers that loosened the required link between the country of ownership and a vessel's flag. Shipowners began to pick and choose which flag their vessels would fly, based initially on cost savings, but later also on the prospect of an easy ride from certain flag states when investigations took place. This is what came to be known as choosing a 'flag of convenience' (FoC).

The impact of FoCs on seafarers

The International Transport Workers' Federation (ITF) defines a flag of convenience ship as 'one that flies the flag of a country other than the country of ownership'. Some FoC registers are better than others, but the very existence of the system creates a lack of transparency and accountability that lowers standards and harms seafarers.

According to the ITF, workers onboard FoC vessels are more likely to experience:

  • very low wages
  • poor onboard conditions
  • inadequate food and clean drinking water
  • long periods of work without proper rest, leading to stress and fatigue

Meanwhile, by 'flagging out', shipowners can take advantage of:

  • minimal regulation
  • cheap registration fees
  • low or no taxes
  • freedom to employ cheap labour from the global labour market

The ITF believes there should be a 'genuine link' between the real owner of a vessel and the flag the vessel flies, in accordance with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). 'FoC registries make it more difficult for unions, industry stakeholders and the public to hold ship owners to account,' stresses the Federation.

Nautilus supports this view, arguing that members' interests are best served by the genuine link principle.

Mitigating the effects of FoCs

Flags of convenience have become so prevalent in the industry that most Nautilus members have probably sailed on an FoC vessel at some point. Because there are so many seafarers affected, the ITF acknowledges that action is needed to improve the daily lives of thousands of seafarers onboard FoC vessels today – while still holding onto the aim of eventually eliminating the system.

Some FoC registers are better than others, but the very existence of the system creates a lack of transparency and accountability that lowers standards and harms seafarers

To mitigate the effects on seafarers, the Federation works in several ways to improve the standards onboard FoC vessels. Through bodies such as the International Bargaining Forum, the ITF negotiates agreements with maritime employers and crewing agencies to secure minimum standards and conditions for larger groups of seafarers.

ITF-approved collective agreements set the wages and working conditions for all crew on FoC vessels, irrespective of nationality. All vessels covered by an ITF-approved agreement get a certificate which signifies the agreed wages and working conditions onboard.

In addition, the ITF's Mexico City policy commits affiliated unions to provide all seafarers with proper union representation and protection. They work together to provide collective agreement coverage for all seafarers, irrespective of their nationality or country of origin.

The global network of ITF inspectors also helps to improve the lot of crew members on FoC vessels, who are more vulnerable than the average seafarer to being abandoned without pay.

The ultimate goal

There's no doubt that these measures improve the pay and conditions of seafarers on FoC vessels, yet the ITF has never lost sight of the goal of driving vessels to bona fide national flags. The Federation's anti-FoC campaign has been going for over 75 years, but the desire to win this battle burns as brightly as ever in the hearts of trade unionists.

'Together with our colleagues at the ITF, we are campaigning at a national and international level to restore the link between a vessel's country of ownership and the flag it flies,' Nautilus head of international relations Danny McGowan says.

'To achieve this aim, we are in regular talks with policy-making bodies such as the International Maritime Organization and International Labour Organization. We seek to look not only at UNCLOS but also at other conventions that would help us to achieve our aims for the benefit of all maritime professionals.'

Registries currently listed as flags of convenience

The following ship registries have been declared FoCs by the ITF's fair practices committee (a joint committee of ITF seafarers' and dockers' unions), which runs the ITF campaign against FoCs. The list is correct as of March 2024:

Antigua and Barbuda Cayman Islands German International Ship Register (GIS) Malta Netherlands Antilles St Kitts and Nevis
Bahamas Comoros Georgia Madeira North Korea St Vincent
Barbados Cook Islands Gibraltar (UK) Marshall Islands (USA) Palau Sri Lanka
Belize Cyprus Honduras Mauritius Panama Tanzania (Zanzibar)
Bermuda (UK) Equatorial Guinea Jamaica Moldova San Marino Togo
Bolivia Faroe Islands (FAS) Lebanon Mongolia Sao Tome and Príncipe Tonga
Cameroon French International Ship Register (FIS) Liberia Myanmar Sierra Leone Vanuatu

Listen to our podcast on flags of convenience

In Season Two, Episode 4 of the Nautilus podcast Off course, we talk to Jacqueline Smith, the maritime coordinator for the International Transport Workers' Federation (ITF).

Listen as Jacqueline tells us more about the concept of flags of convenience (FoCs) and why the ITF is calling for a global review of ship registration practices – not to mention a clearer definition of a 'genuine link' between a ship and its flag state.

We also discuss the lack of enforcement of these regulations by FoC countries, particularly during the Covid-19 pandemic.


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