“Flag of any country allowing registration of foreign-owned, controlled vessels.” Boczek, 1962. Cambridge-Harvard.
The landscape of maritime changes in terms of legal and human rights aspects and not only associating with piracy and terrorism; though relating to both in some ways; FOC/Flags of Convenience vessels. As defined above, these are vessels registered in other countries while differing from nationality of the owner; commonly from Barbados, Liberia, Panama and Bahamas. Flags of Convenience vessels are becoming a common sight in modern maritime and spreads across popular vessel categories ranging from cargo carriers and tugs to cruise ships; adopted by commercial vessel operators as well as illegal syndicates dealing, as reported before in human, drug trafficking.
So how do such vessels appear at sea? They appear when marine operators of any nationality abandon their own flags and switching them for a cheaper and less controllable alternative where standards of training and safety are lower than a more mainstream, commercially-operated vessel; seafarers working on such vessels are denied basic trade union and human rights. FOC flags are also attractive because of protection from liabilities and taxes as well as easier entry and exit from open registers. Marine operations in the modern world grow more dangerous from a tangible and ethical standpoint therefore creating one more reason to why FOC flags are adopted by commercial marine operators; unlimited choice of crew hiring on the international market as well as anonymity and immunity to wage scales.
Knowing the above, the situation presents a somewhat positive impression of FOC operations where multi-national crews can be given jobs in countries where unemployment is an issue and only connections to outside world is done through shipping. However this is short-lived as FOCs have a long list of disadvantages. Firstly, most FOC ships are older than an average vessel along with poor maintenance; presenting bad working and living conditions which are hazardous for seafarers for numerous reasons. The fact that vessels are old and under-maintained leads to a system focusing on profit alone as seafarers work longer hours for low and un-guaranteed wages.
This focus on profit affects the ship itself as no resources are spent on survey, maintenance and design which warrants sinking and loss of life and cargo, though it is also the focus of owners. However, the legal status of FOC shields owners from any liability to the vessel, environmental and miscellaneous damage along with damage to cargo; lifting responsibility for all damage. So far, it is possible to derive that FOC vessels, from a vessel owner’s perspective are a winning situation which makes operation of said vessel more profitable; hinting towards less attention paid by this party. Legally, vessel owners are also protected as tracking them down is a complicated, time-consuming process which involves going through front companies which are mostly based in other countries entirely. This structure also creates a chain which protects the vessel owner in ways that it shields them from international laws and regulations.
FOC vessels are legally immune to all claims but what can the seafarers do to help their situation? Vessel captains, if something is done, may write “ITF TROUBLEMAKER” in their discharge book which also has a chance to land him in prison upon reaching land; leaving the situation practically hopeless.
So how can this issue be resolved or even changed? There were 2 campaigns of mixed results and little success which only sightly changed the working and living conditions aboard an FOC ship. The entire structure of this system makes the vessel owner immune and tracking all the leads is hard and time consuming; requiring another strategical start. The start should be from the seafarers themselves who move the entire operation forward as well as port authorities. Recently, a vessel was detained by AMSA and banned from Australian ports for poor maintenance and onboard conditions; this is the first step to combat FOC problems; preventing operations from going forward UNLESS conditions are improved.
FOC vessels, according to ITF data are likely to be abandoned by their owners, (57%) mostly with the crew onboard. It was estimated that 2000 deaths occur at sea on a yearly basis where there is little-to-no chance of compensation and legal resolution. Another useful variable are trade unions, though holding little to no impact aboard but having more than one trade union as well as solidarity between seafarers and union representatives will improve the onboard condition as well as establish a theoretical place to improve relations between seafarers. This will be an important first step to improve conditions aboard as communication would be better during emergencies and general work to avoid difficulties in fatal situations; decreasing chances of critical injury and death.
Seafarers on FOC ships, as established before come from all over therefore presenting a possibility for communication difficulties arises; enforcing the need to establish solidarity and positive rapport. Since work hours are longer and there were reports of seafarers falling asleep during important moments; failing the task and mostly, resulting in serious damage and death. Positive rapports can make way for non-linear approaches to tasks in ways that seafarers can negotiate alternate working hours with their peers; replacing each other during shifts whenever personal health is an issue.
Emergencies and life-threatening situations at sea are always a factor with survival chances being lower than on an average, commercial vessel. What does this require? This requires, once again a closer, more positive connection among seafarers not only on a personal level but also on communication. Communication is a persistent issue as FOC crews are hired from countries thus creating a chance that crews may not speak English, arguably the most international and widely-spoken language. The first proposition to this problem is a creation of a unified form of communication which many can grasp, learn and master as well as apply to specific scenarios such as vessel machinery operation. This unified system of communication should be simple, technical and easy-to learn and use.
Overall, this is a persistent problem of modern maritime where solutions are limited and control from governing bodies is cut-off. However the possible solution lies within seafarers and their unions as well as solidarity between all these parties will improve on-board conditions; the first step to making FOCs better places to work and live in. Solutions are step-by step and progressively will improve conditions independently from the vessel owner. Finally, another solution to the first problem that FOC crews may face is creation of a unified, easy-to-learn and master form of communication which would be utilised onboard; communication is key to solution of the first established problem.