The self-congratulatory drum beating- as the Maritime Labour Convention passed its first anniversary date after coming into force last August- was expected; we in shipping love to declare victory while doing little to improve things. If you must know the truth, ask sailors whether their lives have improved noticeably in the last year; ask them if they are now being treated more fairly.
That said, the Australian Maritime Safety Authority’s recent decision to ban the containership Vega Auriga from Australian ports for three months for repeated breaches of seafarer welfare and ship maintenance issues is a clear positive. The German owned, Liberian Flagged and third party MSC operated vessel had been detained seven times in Australia (and once in Singapore) for maintenance, safety, wage, sanitary and other issues. Quite correctly, the General Manager of AMSA’s Ship Safety Division Allan Schwartz said vessels entering Australian ports must ensure they meet minimum international standards. “Vessels that do not meet such standards, including standards for the welfare and treatment of crew, pose an increased risk to seafarers, safe operations and the marine environment,” he said.
Although I don’t like the word ‘welfare’- decent living and working conditions have been every sailor’s legal right long before the MLC was a gleam in somebody’s eye- I wish more regulators would link the two, as AMSA has done. It would change things much more quickly.
The ITF and other unions, with their own axes to grind, have gone to town about Flags of Convenience after the Vega Auriga ban. The former said, “ITF inspectors have seen environments aboard these flag-of-convenience ships, that are freely plying the Australian international shipping trade, that are not fit for human habitation”.
That statement is rubbish. I have sailed on many FOC ships (well, mainly Panamanian and Liberian) that are decently maintained and ‘welfared,’ and I have sailed on many FOC ships that are not. I have sailed on many ships plying under national flags (including European open registries) where the conditions are as bad, if not worse, than aboard the worst FOC ships. Even today, for example, many Indian flagged ships have more maintenance and ‘welfare’ related issues- including non-payment or delayed payment of wages, unsanitary living conditions, insufficient food and water et al- than many FOC ships. Even today, many short haul European national registered ships have levels of manning that are downright unsafe, and where extreme fatigue is endemic. Remember that the Flag State has the responsibility for certification and safe operations of vessels under their flag, regardless of where the ship operates.
There is also a not-so subtle racism at play here. I once sailed on a European registered (and crewed by nationals of that European country) ship as an observer prior to that ship’s sale and change of crew; I was to take over as Master after the change. The ship was on a regular US run. She had no SOPEP, ISPS or safety manuals. No garbage segregation. No drills. The crew were drinking schnapps with every meal, whether in port or at sea. And she had no US Coast Guard inspection for the two and a half months or so that I was there.
We- Indians and Filipinos- took over in a US port, where the flag was changed to Panamanian. Within an hour, the US Coast Guard had descended on the ship, pointing out deficiencies including the fact that the lid of one brand new garbage can was awry. Same ship, different rules. Why? Because of the colour of the flag and the colour of our skins is why.
The fact is that substandard ships exist because substandard managers and owners do. Some of these substandard managers are even well established and well reputed; I have sailed with one or two of them. Where their ships are registered (or where their crews come from) is of far lesser significance than the owner’s or manager’s integrity. A flag does not cut corners, promote minimum maintenance or ill-treat crews; owners and managers do. And if you think only FOC’s permit an owner or manager to do these things, I am afraid you are far more naïve than you think.
Therefore, it is wrong to promote the arbitrary notion that a FOC equals substandard ships. It obfuscates the issue, promotes the unfair targeting of FOC ships and rejuvenates a lie that allows many shipmanagers to get away with murder.