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Part 20 - Greed Upon the Oceans: Flag of Convenience Ships

Steel constructed nightmares sailing the oceans of the world. Death ships, the birth child of the "new global economy". Oil spills, running around, sinking of rust buckets, crews forced to work at low wages that is when they are paid at all, long hours, death and injury at sea, and sometimes abandoned without food or water, are we talking about the modern world here? Yes we are! The nightmare is called "Flag Of Convenience. (FOC) ships. A growing form of greed upon the oceans that few people outside of the maritime industry know little about.

Though FOC ships have been around for a while, but in the new wave of global capitalist expansionism the increase of FOC ships has greatly increased. Like the landslide global capitalist onslaught of exploitation, the environment, human rights, organized labor and common dignity have been cast aside by the greed of but a few worthless parasites upon the seas as well. They are grinding our world in to the dust in order to produce profit. The once proud maritime fleets of the world are becoming an object of shame. When viewed as a whole and seeing the effects Lindsay's Maritime Law seems to speak of the direction the maritime industry is heading; "When your draft exceeds the water's depth, you are most assuredly aground". The maritime industry and the health of the oceans are being run aground upon the shallow waters of industrial greed.

I first became aware of FOC ships while working ship repair. These were the ships that we had to work on that all of us would have rather not ever board. They were all rust buckets that were not maintained and the only work done on them was what had to be done out of necessity.

I have worked on FOC ships of all kinds; tankers, general cargo ships, bulk carriers and cruise ships to name a few. I have seen first hand the terrible conditions these ships are really in and I have talked to many crewmembers and heard their stories that seem like tales from a different era.

When I found that few outside of the maritime industry knew little about FOC ships, that is when I decided to do some research on them and write about what I found. Though I was able to find some information in the newspapers, the bulk of the information I found came from the International Transport Workers Federation (ITF). My first exposure to ITF came when the ITF ship Global Mariner came to Tacoma. The Global Mariner is a floating exhibition on FOC ships and the plight of their crews.

I found out that the ITF has a global campaign on the issue of FOC ships that includes; inspections and advocacy of the improved condition of seafarers on FOC ships that even includes international days of action. The following information will give you a limited view of the problems that FOC have created in the maritime industry. Still there is enough information here to get a good understanding of the situation.

A "Flag Of Convenience" (FOC) ship is a ship where the nationality of the owner is different from the country in which the ship is registered. Countries that offer registration of ships owned by foreign interests are considered to have what is called an "open register". Foreign owned ships dominate the flags of "open register" countries.

The modern origin of open registries can be traced back to the 1920s, when the United Fruit Company created the Honduran open registry to ensure the cheap and reliable transport of its bananas. The Panamanian open registry came about soon after that because U.S. flagged passenger ships wanted to serve liquor during Prohibition. The Liberian open register came about during the "Cold War" because the U.S. wanted a fleet of "neutral" ships to haul its cargo, mostly oil.

Some times it is even hard to trace down the real owners a FOC ship. Often in the register country the address for the ship owners will only be a Post Office Box. From there you must follow a series of front companies, often in different countries, before you end up finding the real owners of a FOC ship.

Many large American shipping lines like the American President Lines are leaving U.S. flags and are becoming FOC ships. In 1998 there were 28 open register countries of FOC ships and 19,270 vessels over 100 GT, which comes to 22.5% of the world's fleet and in that year there was a 8.5% increases in FOC ships.

Of the top 35 maritime countries based on real ownership of vessels not one of them is an open register country. For example, the true nationality of ownership of ships from Greece that are part of open register fleets (percentage of open register fleets) are as follows: Liberia 12.4%, Panama 11.1 %, Cyprus 72.6%, Bahamas 19.0% and Malta 56.3%.

Of the top six fleets of gross tonnage in 1998, five of them are open registers for FOC ships; Panama (6,188 vessels), Liberia (1,697 vessels), Bahamas (1,221 vessels), Cyprus (1,650) and Malta (1,378). The U.S. fleet ranks 11th in gross tonnage. Of the top six fastest growing fleets in percentage of gross tonnage, includes four other open registers of FOC ships; Cayman Islands, Cambodia, Belize, and Antigua/Barbuda. This comes to 51.3% of the world's gross tonnage carried on FOC ships.

Each year the numbers above keep growing at an alarming rate. The reason for this is that there is greater profit in sailing FOC ships for the ship-owners. The following are the reasons for this: Easy entry to and exit from open registers; low taxes or no taxes levied on shipping; the governments of open registered countries lack the power or willingness to impose national or international standards which allows FOC ships to avoid health, safety, environmental and ship maintenance regulations; avoid union ship crews; hire ship crews from the most economically depressed nations; helps suppress ship crews grievances; and in some cases allows for true ship-owners to avoid economic responsibility for such things as environmental damage, shipping accidents, and payment of ship crew's wages.

FOC ships make up two-thirds of all ocean pollution case sited by the U.S. Coast Guard. In one year the U.S. Coast Guard sited 78 cases of ship pollution from Panama FOC ships; only 18 were investigated by Panama and 10 were fined.

Of the top 20 flags of lost vessels at sea in 1998 the top five were open registered, 10 out of 20 were also open registered, 53 ships lost out of 74 were FOC ships. Between 1992 and 1995 Panamanian open register lost a total of 89 ships at sea.

The ITF says that at least 2,200 seafarers die each year at sea and that crews on FOC ships are more than twice as likely to get killed on the job. The families of seafarers that die on FOC ships most of the time do not receive a penny in compensation from the ship-owners, The International Maritime Organization reported that the top ten flags detained after port state control inspections throughout the world include 8 open registries, and of that top ten 1,196 detained ships out of 1,479.

The Coast Guard in Lake Charles found 32 major deficiencies on two small Belizean freighters -- the Velda and the Marwil -- alone in the same month. Those two ships were issued pollution prevention and vessel safety certifications by the International Shipping Bureau of Miami, even though there were wasted cargo-hold frames on the Marwil and holes in the Velda's superstructure. The Coast Guard believes that many FOC ships are being certified without inspections and that they are just being sold without ever having even seen the ships.

In just one year the FOC ships registered in Malta had 207 detained ships which included the numbers of deficiencies sited of: safety in general, 135; fire fighting appliances, 133; life saving appliances, 129; navigation, 92; marine pollution, 70; load lines, 64; propulsion, 52; crew accommodations, 38; radio, 36; operational deficiencies, 18.

The consequences of ships maintained so poorly are seen in the papers all the time with accidents and oil spills. One such accident that got worldwide publicity happened on the Mississippi River down in New Orleans.

On Dec. 15, 1996, the Liberian FOC ship 70,000-ton freighter Bright Field lost power and much of its ability to steer rammed into a busy shopping mall on the New Orleans riverfront, gouging up 200 feet of steel and concrete. There were 116 people who were injured. Because of the actions of the crew and the river pilot the ship just missed, by 70 feet, a floating casino packet with people. They did that by dropping the anchor and had they not been able to do that hundreds of people would have been killed.

Ironically when I lived down in New Orleans another Liberian FOC ship lost steering and plowed into the New Orleans waterfront on its way up river. After it was repaired and loaded up river, on its way down river it again lost steering a collided with a sternwheeler in which after that I worked on the repair crew.

The M/V Jahan (Belize FOC registered) was reported sunk in the South Atlantic Ocean in good weather, and all 28 crewmembers were reported lost. A distress call reported, "uncontrollable flooding" and that the crew, mostly Bangladeshi citizens, would be forced to abandon ship. The distress call was not a general call but rather was a normal telex sent to the ship-owners. The ship had an Inmarsat C system that was not used. Australian Marine Rescue, the South African Air Force and three bulk carriers searched for the ship and found nothing. Later the ship resurfaced in Tema, Ghana displaying a different name. It seems that the ship had a lean on it and it sought to fake its own sinking.

In 1998 the top 20 flags that ITF Actions Unit handled crew complaints included 11 open registers of which there were 1,197 out of 1,597 complaints. These complaints included: abandonment of seafarers, substandard living conditions, substandard ships, victimization, unfair dismissals, medical treatment, overtime and delayed wages. Wages paid to seafarers is a major reason for FOC ships; for example the estimated monthly cost of a 24-member crew (officers and unlicensed seafarers) of Europeans is $80,100, and for a Chinese crew $21,900. 18% of FOC crews get paid less than $500 a month. 68% are paid less than $1,200 a month and 6% of all FOC crews are owned back wages. On most FOC ships stowaways (often escaping political repression or for economic reasons) are used as slave labor and do not receive any wages.

The following is one good example of the conditions of FOC ships. The Coast Guard detained the Greek-owned FOC bulk carrier the Fontini after they found no working pump for fighting fires, lifeboat space for only 26 of the 40 men aboard and the crew complained of kidney and lower back pains from having to drink foul water.

Ships are very complex workplaces and the level of alertness is very important. For it has been shown that human factors were a critical part in at least 80% of shipping accidents. With the general reduction of the size of ship crews, the increase number of hours they work, and the increase length of tours away from home (many in the excess of a year) fatigue has become a dangerous increasing factor. The physical and psychological effects of fatigue include the following:

  • Loss of concentration and diminished decision making ability.
  • Loss of alertness and extended reaction time.
  • Impaired coordination of control skills.
  • Tiredness, depression and irritability.
  • Poor sleep quality and disrupted sleep patterns.
  • Loss of appetite, gastro-intestinal problems.
  • Increased risk of infection.
  • Higher incidence of cardiovascular disease.
  • Increased accident and mortally rates.

Researchers have found that long hours worked are similar to the effect of blood-alcohol leaves higher than those allowed in the operation of any vehicles. But on FOC ships there are no standards of length of hours worked though there are for blood-alcohol leaves even though they both pose the same danger.

Sleep time is also limited by other factors: noise, cargo working, alarms, safety drills, vibration, machinery, PA announcements; call-outs while off -watch and poor weather. The working patterns of many seafarers run against the bodies natural rhythms and along with the other factors listed about, leave many seafarers with almost permanent 'jet lag' type symptoms.

The following are two examples of where fatigue was the major factor in accidents:

  • From a report of a shipmaster; "During port operations, I was serving as chief officer and had worked continuously for 48 hours. I contributed to a chemical overflow in which serious injury occurred by not concentrating on the loading operation. Acrylonitrile overflowed and covered two men when I hot-washed an adjacent tank."

  • A cargo ship that collided with an oil tanker after the officer keeping watch - who had obtained only 2.5 hours sleep in the preceding 33 hours - fell asleep. Many FOC ships are nothing more than rust buckets that are run as cheaply as possible. That means little maintenance of the ships. When these ships are detained for the purpose of repairs, pollution responsibility and different forms of liability, it has become a common practice of the FOC ship-owners to abandon ships. This leaves the ship's crew stranded in a foreign port, many times without food, drinking water, medicine, heat and owed wages, often for many months on end.

In 1998 the ITF handled 66 cases (1997 - 78 cases and 1996 - 110 cases) of abandonment of seafarers. ITF recorded 199 cases of different ships where their crews were abandoned. Of the cases reported to the ITF 54% in 1998 and 70% in 1997 were FOC ships. In 1998 this amounted to 371 seafarers abandoned by FOC ships in 1998. The worst offending open registers were Malta, Panama, St. Vincent, Cyprus and Honduras. The two worst non-open register flags were Singapore and Pakistan.

The following are some examples of abandon FOC ships in 1999:

  • The FOC Maltese flagged MN Verona was left stranded in the port of Hamburg, Germany after it was detained for technical deficiencies. The Polish and Filipino crew was left without food or water, and the Swedish owners had not paid the crew for over 5 months.

  • The crew of the MN Terpsichore (Maltese FOC flag) were abandon in the Port of Mongla, Bangladesh without food, clean drinking water and electricity. Because of the appalling conditions crewmembers were in poor health and there was an outbreak of hepatitis. Because the crew had not been paid in 10 months they were forced to sell their belongings to buy food.

  • The crew of the Queen of Vevey (Panamanian FOC flag), made up of Russian and Ukrainian seafarers, was abandon at anchorage at Port Stanley in the Falkland Islands in unsanitary conditions. The ship was said to be "unseaworthy". The crew remained unpaid and a local Seamen's Mission was supplying them with food and water. The ship was sold and changed its name to the Maimad and reflagged to the FOC St. Vincent register. The authorities of the Falkland Islands did little to help because, as they stated "it is only too likely that unscrupulous ship-owners would be encouraged to abandon their vessels there..."

  • The Burmese crew of the Brahm (Maltese FOC flag) was abandoned off the coast of Lagos, Nigeria for almost six months. They were forced to cook and clean with river water and became stricken with tropical diseases. Several crewmembers became so ill that they had to be transported to a hospital. The crew also had not been paid.

  • The Ukranian crew of the Alcor (Maltese FOC flag) was abandoned in the St. Lawrence River off of Quebec City, Canada after it ran aground. The reason it ran around was that it suffered a rudder breakdown. The vessel had vertical crack in the hull running from deck to water level. The crew had not been paid in months.

  • The Sri Lankan, Ukrainian and Romanian crew of the Elijeanne (Panamanian FOC flag) were abandoned in Port Au Prince, Haiti. The crew was forced to sleep in alleyways and on hatch covers. The vessel was infested with mosquitoes that led to an outbreak of malaria. The crew also had not been paid.

  • The crew of the MN Endurance (Belizean FOC flag) was abandoned in the Port of Maputo, Mozambique. The captain left the ship without food, water or fuel for electricity. The crew had not been paid wages in months.

  • The crew of mixed nationality from Central America and Asia of the MN Ocean Wave (Panamanian FOC flag) were abandoned in Mongla, Bangladesh after the ship went aground. Because of serious structural deficiencies and the likelihood of the ship breaking up, the crew left the ship and were placed in custody by Bangladesh authorities. There they waited for their wages.

  • The Pakistani crew of the Normar Pride (Panamanian FOC flag) was abandoned in Curacao, Netherlands Antilles without food, water and their wages.

  • The crews of the sister ships oil tankers Luigi S and Zagara were abandoned after another sister ship the Erika (all three are Maltese FOC flagged) broke up and sank in the Bay Biscay, polluting the Brittany beaches with heavy fuel oil. The crew of the Luigi S was abandoned in Montenegro, and the crew of the Zagara was abandoned in Sicily. The crews had not been paid in over a year. The abandonment came about out of the ship-owners wanting to cut their assists and avoid responsibility for the costs of the pollution of the Erika.

  • The crew of the Karteria (Maltese FOC flag) was abandoned in the Port of Antwerp, Azores after a horrific explosion that left two dead and another with a broken back with 30% burns. That crewmember was left in a hospital that could not treat him until the ITF intervened. The rest of the crew was abandon with an unstable cargo that continued to emit explosive quantities of hydrogen gas.

  • The Pakistani crew of the Delta Pride (Maltese FOC flag) was abandoned off the coast of South Padre Island, Texas for over 10 months. The ship had its papers and the seafarer's passports confiscated after the owner skipped out of dues by going bankrupt. The SOS calls from the crew were ignored and they ran out of fuel, thus not power for lights and cooking. They had to save rainwater, for they had run out of fresh water and they had to fish in order to eat. The crew became malnourished and sick from having to drink dirty water.

86% of the personal injury and loss of life claims handled by ITF in 1998 were from FOC ships.

Most seafarers on FOC ships are recruited by shipping agents (job sharks) and are forced to sign over their first month's wages to these employment agents. If any of them express any grievance or speak of unions they become blacklisted for future employment at sea.

Having worked on FOC cruise ships I have often wondered if those well off passengers have any understanding of the reality of these ships. The passengers see an American owned cruise ship company and falsely believe that U.S. maritime laws protect them. But if the ship is registered in an open register country, then it is the standards of that country that ship follows. When some type of accident happens the liability that ship faces is found in the country of register and not the country of ownership.

In 1998, 59% of cruise ship passengers were American and 26% were European. Two open registers made up 52.5% of capacity of passengers; Liberia ((28.5%) and Panama (24%). Other open registers have the bulk of the rest of the passengers with only two non-FOC flags included in the top 8.

Kathy Lee Gifford became very upset when the public found out that she clothing line was produced in sweatshops. She shed her crocodile tears and pretended to try to make emends. While at the same time she promoted floating sweatshops in her "If you could see me now..." Carnival Cruise Line commercials that fail to point out that those ships are all FOC registered (Bahamas, Panama and Liberia). Carnival Cruise Lines is the Kathy Lee Fashions of the maritime industry.

The following are some examples are of some of the troubles FOC cruise ships have run into:

  • The FOC Bahamian registered Starward ran aground while drifting offshore awaiting to arrive in St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands. It suffered damage to the propellers and spilled hydraulic oil into the sea. The ship ran aground at the base of a 150-foot cliff. How could they have not have seen it? Because of the unprofessionally of the bridge watch that depended upon their global positioning system (GPS) only.

  • The Canard-owned (FOC) Royal Viking Sun ran aground on a coral reef off of Egypt and was seized to pay for damages. A few months before that the Owned-owned (FOC) Saga Fjord was destroyed by fire in the Philippines.

  • The Panamanian (FOC registered) Royal Majesty ran aground 10 miles off Nantucket Island because the bridge watch had the ship on autopilot guided by a GPS that had failed.

  • The Royal Caribbean Cruises, the world's second largest cruise line and FOC registered, pleaded guilty to routinely dumping oil and hazardous chemicals from nine of it's ships in U.S. waters. The company admitted it had dumped toxic solvents in New York Harbor; had dumped oil and toxic chemicals in Miami, the Virgin Islands, Los Angeles and the Inside Passage in Alaska; and had repeatedly lied to the Coast Guard. This guilty plea came just one month after the company had be found guilty of other dumping charges and had promised to stop polluting, and two years after pleading guilty in San Juan, Puerto Rico and Miami to obstruction of justice, a fleet wide conspiracy to dump oil and lying to the Coast Guard. After all of this the company issued a press statement saying all the dumping was just a "mistake."

  • The FOC registered cruise ship Discovery had a major engine room fire while returning to Port Everglades, Fl. Though there was never an alarm sounded, the passengers found themselves enveloped in smoke. Engine room workers had reported a fuel-line leak to their supervisor hours before the fire but they did not have it repaired. The leak got so bad that they had to use large buckets to catch the streams of oil. Guatemalan crewmembers that told the truth about the leak were fired.

  • Another Discovery Cruise Line ship caught fire off Freeport, Texas only six days after failing a Coast Guard fire drill. Again the fire was the result of a fuel line leak that had been reported and not repaired and again those crewmembers that spoke the truth were fired.

  • The Scandinavian Star (Bahamian FOC) catches on fire 60 miles north of Cancun, Mexico and sustained $3.5 million in damages. The NTSB's report criticized the firefighting equipment, engine-room maintain and that a lack of common language among the crew hindered their ability to communicate with each other and the passengers in the emergency situation. Two years later the same ship catch on fire in the North Sea in which flames and toxic fumes killed 158 people. 99 people died in their cabins. Escape routes were hard to follow and some corridors led to dead ends. In two such dead ends 20 bodies were found.

  • The Carnival owned Celebration (Liberian FOC ship) 733-foot cruise ship rammed the Capitan San Luis, a 352 foot Cuban bulk carrier off the coast of Cuba. It sliced the Cuban ship in two, killing three crewmembers and injuring 13. The "accident" happened in good visibility and the cruise ship had the most modern, automatic radar system, but no one was monitoring the radar. A federal judge in Miami quashed the investigation after deciding that the NTSB had no authority over the foreign registered ship. Later when the same ship caught on fire near San Salvador Island in the Bahamas, the cause was mechanical failure.

  • The Golden Princess (Bahamian FOC ship) caught on fire bounded for Vancouver, B.C. from San Francisco. The ship had to be towed to Victoria, B.C. * The Universe Explorer (Panamanian FOC ship), en route from Juneau to Glacier Bay, Alaska caught on fire. Five crewmembers died and 76 passengers were injured.

  • The 30,000-ton Sun Vista caught fire in the main engine room and sunk off the coast of Malaysia. It was two hours after the fire broke out that the first distress signal was sounded. All power went out and the emergency lights never came on. Smoke flowed through the air-conditioning vents into cabins and passageways. The passengers and crew were all covered with soot as left the ship in 18 lifeboats and 4 rafts. As they watched the ship sink below the waters they sung the theme song from the 1998 movie "Titanic."

  • The Carnival Cruise Lines ship Ecstasy caught fire shortly after it leaving the Port of Miami, generating huge clouds of dark smoke. 60 people were reported injured, most for smoke inhalation. The fire was contained to the aft section of the ship as the crew closed fire doors to keep it from spreading. Had the ship been on the high seas rather than just two miles out of port the situation would have been far worse than it had been. Many passengers stated that they smelled smoke long before any alarm was sounded. The owners at a press conference tried to put the blame on two welders, but the facts came out that they had not yet begun to work when the fire started. The was not the first major fire aboard this ship, an electrical fire broke out in the engine room forcing the shut down of one of its engines, as it was returning to Miami on an earlier voyage.

  • Royal Caribbean (Liberian FOC) ship the Legend of the Seas, ran aground off Catalina Island, The Dominican Republic.

The cruise ship industry is working to repeal the U.S. Passenger Services Act that prevents foreign-flagged ships from carrying passengers between U.S. ports. The repeal of this law would mean that an industry that pays not taxes in the U.S., has underpaid workers from other countries, gets around health, safety and environmental laws and are floating union busters would then be able to sail from U.S. ports to other U.S. ports. The main backer of the repeal campaign is Sen. Strom Thurmond.

Some may read what I have written and think; "This sounds terrible, but FOC ships do not affect me personally, so why should I try to do something about it?" Maybe if you never go out on the seas and have to worry about the condition of the ship your on or if another ship rams into it. Maybe if you do not live by the oceans and oil spills and the intentional dumping of hazardous chemicals may not directly affect you. Maybe you view the protection of the environment as someone else's problem. Maybe you feel that the rights of working people to organize, have safe jobs and to better their conditions has no bearing on your economic conditions.

Maybe you do not see that gaining basic human rights for all is directly connected to your human rights. Maybe as a taxpayer you do not care if others who make great wealth pay no taxes. Maybe you live in a bubble, isolated from humanity and the environment that the rest of us depend upon for survival. Then maybe FOC ships are not your concern.

In the real world we do not live in isolation unaffected by what happens to others and what happens to the environment. In the real world all things are connected. When the basic human rights of some are threaten then the basic human rights of all are threaten. How far the forces of greed are willing to go for the accumulation of their wealth is a direct indication of how great a threat they are to all of us. The new wave of global corporate expansionism and domination affects every one of us no matter where we live.

When the environment is damaged, that damage does not stop and recognize political borders. The waters of the oceans flow pass the imaginary lines in the waters declaring national boundaries. The health of our world's oceans is directly tied into the environmental health of our planet.

Each of us is directly tired into FOC ships because we consume the goods that are transported upon those ships. That gives each of us a responsibility for what is going on, and it gives each of us a source of power to do something about it. We should not just boycott FOC ships and state that all ships should sail the flag of the "better" countries, because those seafarers upon those ships have a right to work as much as any seafarer of any country.

What is needed is a declaration of the rights of all seafarers that includes the rights of all to a clean and safe environment. That declaration should be the basis of the unionization of all seafarers.

Those ship-owners who do not abided to that declaration should have their ships boycotted along with the goods transported upon them. That means as workers we do not handle boycotted ships; they would not be loaded or unloaded, they would not be serviced or repaired. The goods from these ships would not be handled in anyway by working people, in transportation or in any production use of those goods. As consumers we would not consume any products by companies that use FOC ships to transport their cargo.

There is also a need of a massive public campaign to educate the public about FOC ships. Those who live in port towns should make it known that FOC ships are not welcomed in their port. While at the same time make it clear that they are also there to support the seafarers that are victimized by those ships.

The rich corrupt employers recognize no limitations on what they see as their right to exploit all that is exploitable. They are organized internationally in their own interests and they control most all governments. We, the working people of the world must come to understand that we must also organize in our own self-interests on an international level and stand in universal solidarity with each other. This is the only way we will ever be able to turn the tide away from the exploitation of all to the well-being of all.