Thursday, April 01, 2010

Battling Floating Sweatshops

Left stranded in the Philippines since their ship ran aground on New Year’s Day, 22 North Koreans finally started their way home on March 19, thanks to the intervention of the International Transportworkers Federation (ITF). The rescue was part of a day’s work for the ITF, a global union which represents 4,500,000 transport workers in 148 countries, with its own inspectors in the ports of 48 countries.

It was the ITF port inspector in Manila, Rodrigo Aguinaldo, who took the key role in solving the complicated case of the 22 North Koreans. North Korea has no Embassy or consulate in the Philippines. Among other things, he found food and lodging for the crew, and most of all handled negotiations with the Chinese Embassy to release their passports and allow them to fly home via China.

The ITF came to the crew’s aid even though North Korea’s maritime flag is a “flag of convenience” that allows ships’ owners to evade the national laws, taxes, and unionization of their home countries. The ITF and its seafarers and dock workers sections have long fought this dodge as a floating form of sweatshops.

Even so, at latest count, 40 percent of the world’s big merchant vessels flew flags different from their home countries. In fact, the custom is so deep-seated in maritime culture that the world’s top five shipowning countries (Japan, Germany, the United States, Greece, and China) have “flagged out” their maritime fleets to countries like Vamuatu. Belize, and Cyprus.

Instead of just battling improper flags, the ITF adopted a strategy of also battling the sweatshops that millions of seafarers must endure. As a result, of the remaining FOC vessels in the world, 48 percent have signed an ITF-approved agreement that guarantees seafarers minimal standards of pay and working conditions. ITF inspectors inspect ships visiting their port city, and in cooperation with local authorities, “arrest” a vessel until its sweatshop conditions are corrected.

Last year seafarers collected nearly $40,000,000 in back wages and underpayments, thanks to the ITF, whose inspectors visited 9,562 vessels, most of them flying flags of convenience.

The ITF scored a new breakthrough in 2006, when the UN International Labor Conference adopted the Maritime Labor Convention, which among other things requires large ships operating in international waters to have a maritime labor certificate reinforcing the rights of seafarers. Uniquely among ILO conventions, this one, when ratified, will apply to all states, even those that do not ratify it.

So far, eight states, not yet including the United States, have ratified the convention, with 22 more needed for the convention to go into force.

For more information, see the current issue of The ITF Seafarers Bulletin at

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