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What is ITF’s Flag of Convenience Campagne?

The ITF is unique amongst international trade union organisations in having a powerful influence on wages and conditions of one particular group of workers, seafarers working on ships flying Flags of Convenience (FOCs). FOCs provide a means of avoiding labour regulation in the country of ownership, and become a vehicle for paying low wages and forcing long hours of work and unsafe working conditions. Since FOC ships have no real nationality, they are beyond the reach of any single national seafarers’ trade union.

The ITF has therefore been obliged to take on internationally the role traditionally exercised by national trade unions - to organise and negotiate on behalf of FOC crews. For 50 years the ITF, through its affiliated seafarers’ and dockers’ unions, has been waging a vigorous campaign against shipowners who abandon the flag of their own country in search of the cheapest possible crews and the lowest possible training and safety standards for their ships.

In defining an FOC the ITF takes as its most important criterion whether the nationality of the shipowner is the same as the nationality of the flag. In 1974 the ITF defined an FOC as:

“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 ITF campaign against flags of convenience, which was formally launched at the 1948 World Congress in Oslo in Norway, has two elements:

A political campaign designed to establish by international governmental agreement a genuine link between the flag a ship flies and the nationality or residence of its owners, managers and seafarers, and so eliminate the flag of convenience system entirely;

An industrial campaign designed to ensure that seafarers who serve on flag of convenience ships, whatever their nationality, are protected from exploitation by shipowners.

Over the past 50 years the ITF’s maritime affiliates have developed a set of policies which seek to establish minimum acceptable standards applicable to seafarers serving on FOC vessels. The policies form the basis of an ITF Standard Collective Agreement which sets the wages and working conditions for all crew on Flag of Convenience vessels irrespective of nationality. It is the only agreement normally available to shipowners who run into industrial action. All FOC vessels covered by an ITF-acceptable agreement are issued an “ITF Blue Certificate” by the ITF Secretariat, which signifies the ITF’s acceptance of the wages and working conditions on board. About a quarter of all FOC vessels are currently covered by ITF agreements, thus giving direct protection to over 90,000 seafarers.

Compliance with ITF-recognised agreements is monitored by a network of over 100 ITF inspectors in ports throughout the world. ITF Inspectors are union officials who are either full time or part time working directly with the ITF. By inspecting FOC ships they monitor the payment of wages and other social and employment conditions and if necessary take action to enforce ITF policy. In recent years the number of inspectors has doubled and they are now to be found in ports in every region of the world.

The FOC Campaign is the joint responsibility of the Seafarers’ and Dockers’ Sections and it is the Fair Practices Committee (FPC) which has, since 1952, provided the key forum by which both sections’ representatives have come together to review the day to day running and effectiveness of the Campaign. The involvement of the dockers’ unions, whether through direct action or through co-operation with seafarers’ unions, has continued to be vital to the success of the Campaign.

The FPC is elected at each Congress by a joint Conference of the Seafarers’ and Dockers’ Sections. It usually meets once a year (around May - June). Between meetings, urgent matters may be referred to the Fair Practices Committee Steering Group which deals with matters connected with the approval of collective agreements and non-compliance with ITF policy by ITF maritime affiliates, monitors and develops the strategy and direction of the FOC Campaign, and considers new initiatives and means for expanding and developing the FOC Campaign. The role of the FPC steering group is to monitor the activities of the ITF Inspectors and to make recommendations to the appropriate ITF bodies on the practical implementation of FOC policies and on any other matter relating to the effectiveness of the campaign.

While the political campaign has not so far succeeded in preventing a constant growth in ships using FOC registers, the industrial campaign has succeeded in enforcing decent minimum wages and conditions on board nearly 5,000 FOC ships. In addition, the ITF has become the standard-bearer for exploited and mistreated seafarers, irrespective of nationality or trade union membership, throughout the world. Every year millions of dollars are recovered by the ITF and its affiliated unions in backpay and in compensation for death or injury on behalf of seafarers who have nowhere else to turn.

The ITF Congress in Delhi in 1998 approved a comprehensive policy review document ‘From Oslo to Delhi’, redefining the aims, tactics and procedures of the ITF campaign. For the first time non-FOC sub-standard ships will be included in the campaign, in recognition of the fact that crew pay and physical conditions can be worse on national flag ships than on FOC vessels. The ITF definition of ‘beneficial ownership’ is also redefined to deal with the increasingly complex character of ship owning in the globalised economy.


Seafares’ Trust

The ITF Seafarers’ Trust was established by the ITF Executive Board in 1981 as a body with charitable status under UK law dedicated to the spiritual, moral and physical welfare of seafarers irrespective of nationality, race or creed. Its funding comes from the investment income of the ITF Seafarers’ International Assistance, Welfare and Protection Fund, more usually termed the ITF “Welfare” Fund. This fund is used to provide a wide range of trade union services to seafarers. The Trust, on the other hand, is limited to supporting projects which directly benefit individual seafarers’ welfare.

As flag of convenience tonnage has grown, the traditional sources of finance for seafarers’ welfare have begun to fade, and the ITF, through its Seafarers’ Trust, has become a more and more important force. Since its creation in 1981, it has awarded over 70 million to nearly 1,200 different projects, the majority of them through established seafarers’ welfare bodies.

In the 1998/99 financial year the Seafarers’ Trust reached the expenditure of 7.1 million which is well above the average spending of 4.2 million a year in the last 17 years since 1981. A total of 170 grants totalling 7,189,524 were awarded in the twelve months from 1 April 1998 to 31 March 1999.

In the 1997/98 financial year the Trust made awards to seafarers’ welfare agencies in 25 countries plus 18 grants to ‘international’ agencies. This was the largest number of grants ever awarded to these agencies in the last 17 years. The main avenue for the disbursement of money from the ITF Seafarers’ Trust continues to be via established international welfare agencies such as the Missions to Seamen, Apostleship of the Sea, and various national welfare organisations and agencies some of which have overseas centres. However, an increasing amount of Trust funds is being allocated to broader international activities such as the International Research Centre on Seafarers’ Safety and Occupational Health in Cardiff (UK), the International Maritime Bureau (IMB), the International Sports Committee for Seafarers (ISS), the International Committee on Seafarers’ Welfare (ICSW), the World Maritime University (WMU) and the International Christian Maritime Association (ICMA).

In recent years the Trustees have actively sought to target expenditure in those regions of the world where seafarers’ welfare facilities are relatively underdeveloped such as Asia/Pacific, Africa, Latin America and Central and Eastern Europe.

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