The Suez Canal situation seems like an excellent time to bring up the problem of flags of convenience and the working conditions of seafarers!
As the International Transport Federation describes it, “A flag of convenience ship is one that flies the flag of a country other than the country of ownership.” Coupled with the characteristically murky nature of ownership in the shipping industry, it is incredibly easy for companies to exploit their workers and skirt pollution regulations to a degree rarely seen on land.
Let’s look at the Ever Given. She’s registered in Panama (the most common choice for a FOC), yet operated by a Taiwanese firm, managed by a company in Hamburg, and owned by a Japanese company. And the 25 crew are Indian nationals. This is not at all out of the ordinary for international shipping, if anything, it’s the norm. If that crew number seems low to you, that is also standard for vessels of this size, in part because FOCs allow for skeleton crews operating with little downtime.
I can’t claim anything about the Ever Given, but time and again it’s been shown that working conditions aboard such vessels is nightmarish. By registering under FOCs, shipping companies hand over regulatory authority to nations that are not hugely interested in setting or enforcing standards, allowing them to operate in ways that would be illegal in any nation actually connected to the vessel. Gruelling long hours for shockingly low pay is the industry standard, and inadequate food and drinking water are commonplace. Seafarers who raise complaints will often find themselves bullied and blacklisted by shipping companies, leading to widespread acceptance of such abuses.
Another issue facing seafarers is that of vessel abandonment, one that is only getting worse with the pandemic. A particularly egregious case is that of the MT Iba. Since anchoring off the coast of Dubai in 2017 after financial issues halted operations, the ship and her crew have been all but forgotten by the owner. The crew did not set foot on land again until last month. Leaving the ship would have essentially meant forfeiting their owed wages, leaving them to rely entirely upon a seafarers charity for food and drinking water. The Iba was owned and operated by a company in the UAE and sailed under a Panamanian flag.
In another case, a crewman aboard the MV Aman has been made legally responsible for the vessel by the Egyptian authorities, leaving him stranded alone and forced to swim to shore for supplies since 2017. Mohammed Aisha is suffering deteriorating health as a result of this extended solitary confinement aboard a ship without power and has almost drowned several times during his swims ashore for food, but leaving the vessel would likely result in his prosecution by Egyptian maritime authorities.
The maritime shipping industry is a behemoth, and it’s one that we all rely on. There is very little in your life that has not been aboard a ship or relied upon international shipping for its existence. And seafarers are some of the most isolated and abused workers in the world. Abuse is built into the industry and made practically legal through FOCs and the esoteric nature of vessel ownership. I won’t put a link because tumblr will hide the post from the tags if I do, but please Google “IFT Seafarers”. They’re the main organisation fighting on behalf of seafarers, from the large fight against FOCs to individual campaigns on behalf of abandoned crew.