Flying the Flag, Fleeing the State

Four American yachters killed; a Danish family of five and two crew members kidnapped: these events in the space of a week early this year may finally fuel a consensus that something needs to be done about piracy in the Indian Ocean and Gulf of Aden. And something should be done: in addition to the yachters, nearly 700 sailors, mostly Filipino, Bangladeshi and Russian, are being held hostage. Often forced to operate their captured ships at gunpoint, with little food or water, some of them have been prisoners for months.

But maritime lawlessness isn’t confined to pirates. Thanks to a system of ship registration called “flags of convenience,” it is all too easy for unscrupulous ship owners to get away with criminal behavior. They have evaded prosecution for environmental damage like oil spills, as well as poor labor conditions, forcing crews to work like slaves without adequate pay or rest. But unlike piracy, which seems intractable, the appalling conditions on some merchant ships could be stopped.

Ships used to fly the flags of their nation. They were floating pieces of their home country on ungovernable seas, with all the advantages and disadvantages of government oversight: if things went wrong, seafarers were protected by their governments. If they did wrong, they could be punished.

But in the early 20th century, this began to change. Panama, seeking to attract American ships avoiding Prohibition laws, allowed non-Panamanians to fly its flag, for a fee. Liberia and other countries followed suit. Today these “open registries” are used by over 60 percent of shippers, up from 4 percent in the 1950s.

Under the flags of convenience system, registries have been divorced from government oversight. North Korea has a thriving registry, as does landlocked Mongolia. Liberia’s registry, the second-largest in the world, flourished even during a dozen years of civil war. Some registries allow ship owners to change the flags they’re registered under within 48 hours; some require little more than a signature or an online form from an owner. Many don’t require owners to disclose their identities at all.

Such easy anonymity is dangerous.

In 1999, a oil tanker called the Erika ran aground off Brittany and polluted 250 miles of French coastline. The French government could not penetrate a chain of shell companies in seven countries that stood between the ship and its owner. The owner eventually came forward voluntarily and, when questioned by the BBC about the complex ownership arrangements, said, “That is standard practice in shipping.”

It shouldn’t be.

Many state registries lack the capacity or will to monitor the safety and working conditions on ships, or to investigate accidents. Instead, ship safety certificates are given out by private classification societies. Owners are allowed to choose which society they want — and the worst predictably choose the least demanding. This self-policing has been compared to registering a car in Bali so you can drive it in Australia with faulty brakes.

The human cost of this system is unacceptably high. Long hours and punishing port schedules rarely provide sailors with enough time to rest; some international regulations permit 98-hour work weeks.

Salaries often go unpaid: the International Transport Workers’ Federation, which represents seafarers, recovered $30 million in unpaid wages last year. When the Most Sky, a Turkish ship registered in Panama, docked at a British port last November, its crew had not been paid for months. They had to pool together enough money to buy bread and there was no light or heat in their cabin; they had been using a kebab grill to keep warm.

There are plenty of ships run by decent owners. But delinquency is too easy with open registries, when owners can slip away, unpunished and unaccountable.

The world of merchant shipping is undeniably complex. Nearly half of all crews today are made up of four or more nationalities. On a container ship I sailed on for five weeks last summer, I sat in the officers’ mess next to a Burmese engineer, opposite a Romanian and a Moldovan. The men at the table behind us were Chinese, Filipino and Scottish. The crew mess next door was entirely Filipino. We had a portrait of Queen Elizabeth II on the wall. They had better cookies and a microwave with two settings: Ramen for One and Ramen for Two.

But globalization is no reason that states can’t take responsibility for the ships they register. On paper, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea specifies there should be a “genuine link” between the ship and its flag. But debate continues over what that link should be. At the least, it should involve a state’s being able to carry out effective inspections and monitoring of its ships, rather than tolerating online application forms and no questions asked. Even if the United Nations defined a link, though, it’s not clear that its members would be willing or able to enforce it when flags of convenience are so profitable for both states and ship owners, who stand to save millions of dollars a year in wages and taxes.

A more immediate, if partial, solution would be for port authorities, which have the power to detain unsafe or abusive ships that dock in their harbors, to pay extra attention to ships registered under notoriously lax states, like the Comoros. To avoid this extra scrutiny and the possibility of detention fees, ships might pressure the registries to raise their standards.

Finally, public scrutiny can’t hurt. We boycott food produced by companies that mistreat their workers, but know little about the sometimes atrocious conditions on the ships that carry the food. A campaign called Save Our Seafarers, organized by unions and shippers to raise awareness about piracy, may also cast light on the industry’s own failings.

But the crew members on my ship, who lived in superior standards compared with many, didn’t have much hope. “No one cares about the merchant navy,” the captain said over dinner one night. “We are the scum of the earth. Always have been, always will be.” And with that, he returned to his soup.

By Rose George, the author of The Big Necessity: The Unmentionable World of Human Waste and Why It Matters.

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