Flags That Provide a Veil of Secrecy

The below Opinion piece was penned by International Transport Workers' Federation General Secretary Steve Cotton for the New York Times. In it, he explores the problem with the global shipping industry's over-reliance on Flag-of-Convenience. Originally published here


Every seafarer knows that things that happen at sea don’t get the attention of things that happen on land. Oil spilled on beaches makes headlines, abuse and abandonment rarely do. That’s despite the debt we owe to seafarers who bring us, as the title of a recent book reminds, 90 percent of everything.

'Flags of convenience' cloak ownership and let those who don’t pay crews, or who run unseaworthy ships, escape detection.

How can this be? One reason is the proliferation offlags of convenience, in which countries hire out their flags to shipowners based in other countries on a purely commercial basis. This makes meaningless the link between a ship and the nation whose flag it flies. It’s the antithesis of the strong merchant marine protected for almost a century by the federal Jones Act, and which is now under attack even in states with a strong maritime history such as Canada and Australia. Australia is dismantling its equivalent of the act even as it is investigating three suspicious deaths on a visiting Panama-flagged vessel.

There are, of course, good and even excellent ship owners using flags of convenience, and there are responsible flag of convenience nations too. But there are also many bad and even scandalous ones.

The problem is that flags of convenience provide a veil of secrecy: complete commercial anonymity. They cloak ownership and allow those who don’t pay their crews, or knowingly run unseaworthy "coffin ships" to escape detection and prosecution.

They also impose a huge competitive burden on all those who want to run decent and responsible ships. Couple the lack of transparency with an unwillingness among many flags of convenience countries to investigate safety and crimes on the ships that are technically their sovereign territory and you have a system where even murder can go unpunished.

It needn’t be this way. A genuine link between the owners of a vessel and its flag, with a trained national maritime workforce, can be upheld. There are many good laws and regulations out there.

Port state control organizations (which inspect ships visiting a nation's ports), responsible flag states, trade unions and my organization (the I.T.F.) are among those trying to enforce those laws and regulations, and defend those doing the dangerous and vital job of seafaring.

Since 2013, the Maritime Labor Convention has been a valuable tool to help do this. It sets out minimum standards for the treatment of crews and a legal framework that bodies such as port state control and the International Transport Workers' Federation can utilize to enforce them.There’s also International Labor Organization Convention 188 to improve conditions on fishing boats, which, if more countries ratify it, could help clean up the industry – not least by obliging signatory countries to combat, for example, people trafficking.

The tools are there, the question is whether there’s the national, international and consumer will to apply them. The problem is known, and it’s fixable. It may be out of sight, but it should never be out of mind. Distance from land is no excuse.