Economy & Trade, Global, Global Geopolitics, Headlines, Labour

LABOUR-THIRD WORLD: Asian seafarers exploited by ship owners, recruiters

Haider Rizvi

WASHINGTON, Oct 31 1995 (IPS) - The growth in recent years of maritime trade is impoverishing thousands of Third World seafarers who are cheated by recruiters and exploited by Western ship owners operating under “flags of convenience,” according to industry observers.

About 75 percent of the world’s approximately 1.2 million seafarers hail from developing countries, mostly in Asia. Lured by the dream of escaping poverty by working on the high seas, they often end up penniless and dependent on the mercy of charity and church missions in large western port cities, like Los Angeles, New York and London.

Forced to work long hours for below-minimum wages with no benefits or insurance, these workers are initially recruited back home by agents of western shipping companies operating under foreign flags of convenience (FOC).

The flags of convenience refer to small, mostly poor countries which permit ship owners to register their vessels. Under these so- called “runaway flags,” ship owners avoid the more rigourous labour and safety regulations and higher taxes which prevail in their home countries.

“Often these ships are characterised by defective equipment, inhuman living conditions and unqualified crews,” says Daniel Duncan, editor of the Washington-based ‘Seafarers Log’, a monthly magazine that tracks the violation of labour laws on FOC ships.

The London-based International Transportworkers Federation (ITF), which represents more than 640,000 seafarers, has been campaigning against the use of flag of convenience for the past 40 years, but so far it has failed to force Western governments to ban or crack down on FOC shipping.

“Despite our vigorous campaign, the flags of convenience ship owners continue to exploit Third World seafarers,” says John Sansone, ITF regional director here.

Sansone, who has inspected ships at U.S. ports during the past eight years, says FOC ship owners often withhold workers’ salaries for several months and that in many cases workers are paid much less than what they are promised by recruiting agents.

Many ship owners employ seafarers from Asia through recruiting agents who receive a share of their wages until the contract expires. In many cases, the agents prepare phony work visas to ensure their clients land the jobs, according to the ITF.

“A large number of them do not speak against abuses. They think if they did so, they would lose their jobs and that the company would send them back home,” says Sansone.

Unions say recruiting agents often force seafarers to renegotiate their contracts to repay questionable debts, similar to some forms of bonded labour. “It’s like a vicious circle,” says Kamala Kanan, an official of the Seamen’s Church Institute in Los Angeles.

Kamala, a veteran observer of the seafarers’ plight, says that when a FOC ship arrives in Los Angeles, the crew is not permitted off the ship. “They are forced to work on the ship and wait for their wages for several weeks. Sometimes they are so miserable that …they would not even have money to buy stamps for the letters they write back to their families,” he says.

The world shipping fleet has grown by almost 12 percent over the past decade as a result of the overall expansion in world trade. At the same time, the number of FOC vessels has grown by more than eight percent, despite a worldwide campaign by the seafarers unions which say cost-cutting shippers are using the runaway flags as ways to avoid paying adequate wages and maintaining safe working conditions.

The International Labour Organisation (ILO) has recommended 356 dollars as the minimum monthly wage for all seafarers, but the ITF says the FOC ship owners ordinarily pay far less to Third World seafarers than to their western shipmates.

While U.S. and European seafarers get 1,500 dollars as a minimum wage, most Asians who work on FOC ships are paid between 170 to 200 dollars per month, union leaders say.

Currently, there are more than 80,000 commercial vessels in the world. In 1993, 41 percent of the world’s gross tonnage was shipped by vessels operating under flags of convenience, according to Lloyd’s Register of World Fleet.

Most FOC vessels belong to U.S., European and Japanese ship owners who prefer to hire Third World seafarers, rather than workers from their home countries to avoid high labour costs and safety regulations.

“In the industrialised world, high standards of living on shore and often powerful maritime labor unions make hiring such crews many times more expensive than hiring crews from the Third World,” observes Paul K. Chapman, founder of the New York-based Centre for Seafarers’ Rights.

From the original flag of convenience registries — Panama, Liberia and Honduras — there are now more than 16 nations offering their flags to western ship operators.

They include: the Bahamas, Belize, Bermuda, Burma, Canary Islands (Spain), Cook Islands, Cyprus, Gibraltar, Lebanon, Malta, the Marshall Islands, Mauritius, Netherlands Antilles, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Sri Lanka, Tuvalu and Vanuatu.

Asian countries have become increasingly important suppliers of FOC labour. For western shipping, “the importance of crews of convenience has grown dramatically,” says Chapman. He adds that the number of seafarers from Asia grew from 15 percent of the global total in the 1960s to 67 percent in the late 1980s.

There are 115,000 government-registered Filipinos, nearly 80,000 Indonesians, 41,000 Koreans, 20,000 Indians, 20,000 Burmese and 19,000 Pakistanis.

FOC crew-recruitment methods have increased the risk of accidents in the high seas, industry observers say. In many Third World countries, recruiting agents offer jobs to any unskilled workers who can pay cash, regardless of experience, unions say.

Last year, 1200 seafarers were killed or went missing in ship accidents, according to the Institute of London Underwriters, a Britain-based insurance association that monitors maritime losses. The ITF says FOC ships account for about half of all casualties on commercial vessels.

Seafarer rights advocates say the situation is worse now than what it was during World War Two when U.S. ship owners began using Panama as a flag of convenience. “Profits are the only rudder guiding the course of the maritime industry,” says Chaplain.

The United States and many other western governments oppose a ban on FOC registries, he says, but so do Third World governments.

“It is very difficult to stop,” says Sansone. “There are many governments that have not ratified the ILO convention on minimum wage, and there are those who have ratified it but are not willing to implement it.”

Kamala agrees. “It’s not going to end. As long as people from Third world countries are willing to accept low wage and worst working conditions, this problem will not go away.”

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