The Flags of Convenience (FOC) system, or the practice of ship fleet owners of flying a different flag, is currently the biggest problem among seafarers for it has been an instrument of big capitalists profiting from the maritime industry in escaping from their responsibilities whenever a seafarer is hurt or stricken ill, or dies while performing duties on a ship. What is more saddening, a labor lawyer says, is that the Philippine government does not even want to lift a finger.
BY NOEL SALES BARCELONA
In October 2008, the M/V African Sanderling, with 21 Filipino seafarers aboard, was hijacked by rebels in Somalia.
Before that, the M/V Efximos exploded off the coast of United Arab Emirates (UAE), leaving four Filipino seamen dead. The ship is owned by Greek nationals but uses the Maltese flag as its carrier.
All of these ships are flying Flags of Convenience (FoCs) and it had been difficult for the families and even the organizations advancing the rights and welfare of the Filipino seafarers to make the ship owners accountable because FOCs are concealing their true identities.
Lawyer Joseph Tolang Entero, vice-president and secretary-general of the International Seafarers’ Action Center (ISAC) Philippines Foundation, Inc. said the practice of FoC is being done by ship-owners to protect their interests, enabling them to evade accountability if ever the ship and the workers get into trouble. This way, international authorities and international maritime safety inspectors are “duped” regarding the ship’s true identity.
Most of the ships sailing the oceans are under FOCs
“Most ocean-going vessels in operation are sailing under a FoC where the nationality of the ship owner is different from the nationality of the flag [it carries]. Thus, we have a number of ships owned by German nationals but flying a Panamanian flag; owned by Japanese nationals but flying a Liberian flag; and the like,” he explained.
In 1974, the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF), a moderate federation of workers’ unions and associations in the transport industry, gave this definition of a FOC: “Where beneficial ownership and control of a vessel is found to lie elsewhere than in the country of the flag the vessel is flying, the vessel is considered as sailing under a flag of convenience.”
“The ship-owners practice FoC for cheap registration fees, low or no taxes and freedom to employ cheap labor to ‘flag out’,” states the ITF in its official website (http://www.itfglobal.org/flags-convenience/sub-page.cfm).
To date, there are 32 countries being used as FoCs: Antigua and Barbuda; Bahamas; Barbados; Belize; Bermuda (UK); Bolivia; Burma (Myanmar); Cambodia (Kampuchea); Cayman Islands; Comoros; Cyprus; Equatorial Guinea; French International Ship Register (FIS); German International Ship Register (GIS); Georgia; Gibraltar (UK); Honduras; Jamaica; Lebanon; Liberia; Malta; Marshall Islands (USA); Mauritius; Mongolia; the Netherlands; Antilles; North Korea; Panama; São Tome and Príncipe; St Vincent; Sri Lanka (Laos); Tonga; and Vanuatu.
Labor export hinders Philippines to advance fight vs. FOCs
Entero said it is indeed unfortunate that the Philippine government is not at all interested in confronting the issue of FoC to ensure safety, protection, and better working conditions for Filipino seafarers.
The lawyer blames the labor export policy (LEP), now being intensified by the present government, for the 60-year-old anti-FoC campaign’s failure to gain ground in the Philippines. The ITF campaign against FOCs began in 1948, when it was formally launched at the ITF’s World Convention in Oslo, Norway.
Norway is one of the countries employing a large number of seafarers from different countries, including the Philippines.