Seafarers who are employed on FOC ships are often denied their basic human and trade union rights since FOC registers do not enforce minimum social standards. This is what makes the flag so attractive to shipowners. The home countries of the crew can do little to protect them because the rules that apply on board are often those of the country of registration. As a result, most FOC seafarers are not members of a trade union. For those who are, the union is often powerless to influence what happens on board.
Seafarers are vital to us. They travel the globe with everything we need, from bananas, oil, gas and building materials to cloth, grain and frozen meat. They are also an invisible labour force. What goes on at sea is mostly out of sight of regulators, so shipowners can get away with abusing seafarers' rights without detection.
In nearly 55 years of campaigning against FOCs the ITF has developed a network of inspectors to investigate suspect ships. Their reports reveal a catalogue of abuse of seafarers:
- Very low wages
- Poor on-board conditions
- Inadequate food and clean drinking water
- Long periods of work without proper rest leading to stress and fatigue
Many FOC vessels are older than the average age of the rest of the world fleet. Tens of thousands of seafarers endure miserable, life-threatening conditions on sub-standard vessels. Many of the detentions by Port State Control authorities involve ageing and badly maintained FOC vessels that should never have sailed. Many of these ships have been referred to as "floating coffins".
Poor safety practices and unsafe ships make seafaring one of the most dangerous of all occupations - it is estimated that there are over 2,000 deaths a year at sea. Accidents are frequent, but for many shipowners the delivery of cargoes and the costs of any delay are their only concerns.
Seafarers on their own have little chance of winning compensation. A severed hand can ruin a life, end a seafaring career and rob a large extended family of a regular income. The ITF pursues these cases through the courts but often they must unravel complex company structures before they can work out who has responsibility for the ship and its crew.
The ITF hears daily of crews owed large sums of money. Some crews simply aren't paid. Those that are sometimes find that companies delay, or fail to make, payments to their families when they want to send money home. In many cases months go by without any sign of money promised to seafarers. With no pay they cannot even afford to escape and make their own way home.
Despite the hardships, many FOC seafarers are too frightened to complain. Unscrupulous manning agents circulate the names of seafarers who complain to the ITF or PSC Inspectors.
It is common practice for a ship's captain to write "ITF Troublemaker" in a seafarer's discharge book. With such a mark on their record a seafarer may never be employed again. Some seafarers have even been jailed on returning home. And with even more cheap sources of labour opening up - notably China - conditions and pay risk becoming worse.
The ITF's campaign against FOCs has resulted in better working and living conditions for seafarers of all nationalities. Without the ITF imposing regulations on FOC ships by way of collective agreements there would be no protection and rights for thousands of seafarers today.
Standardisation of working conditions is the ultimate goal and trade unions play a crucial role in achieving this. When national regulation can be so easily undermined by any successful company with branch offices in other countries, international trade unionism is essential. Without it, working conditions inevitably plummet.