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Transporting goods and materials via ocean ship is one of the major methods of transport worldwide and is an essential part of global trade and consumers getting the goods that they want when and where they want them. Sea transport is a fast growing industry in recent decades and it is estimated that over eighty percent of goods are transported through this method. One might assume that such an important source of global trade would be heavily regulated for the safety of both the crews and cargo, but, counter-intuitively, that is not the case. 

According to the United Nations Convention On The Law Of The Sea (UNCLOS) each ship that crosses the ocean needs to fly the flag of a particular country even though they frequently travel from country to country and through international waters. The nation’s flag that they choose is responsible for making sure that the ship meets basic standards and follows basic rules. Some would assume that the ship would often use the flag of their home nation, but that is often not the case. 

Many ocean-going vessel’s ownerships benefit from using a loophole to flout rules and regulations, the flag of convenience. The system began after World War One in the 1920’s, but did not grow in popularity until the 1950’s. In this system, certain countries have sold the use of their flag to ships’ owners in a win-win situation for each of them as the host nation gets more business and a greater amount of influence in international seafarer conventions, and the owner gets reduced fees for registration and a very low tax rate. The countries do not verify the treatment of the workers or ships, do not ensure that they are being paid a correct wage, and do not ensure that the crew knows how to operate the vessel or that they have proper working conditions. Even sadder for the crew, the international method of their travel means that they are outside of the reach of unions so no one is fighting for them. 

Over seventy-three percent of ships worldwide use flags of convenience. The Non-Governmental Organization Shipbreaking Platform alerts us that while the majority of ships are owned by citizens of the United States, Greece, Japan, China, and Norway, the majority of ships worldwide are flying the flag of Panama, the Marshall Islands, and Liberia. Panama is a popular choice because it offers the ability to register ships online anonymously, does not charge an income tax, is located in a beneficial location between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, possesses the Panama Canal, and has labor willing the work for cheap wages. Panama’s dominance in shipping is ironic since they have very little of a historical tradition of shipping. If the shipowner does not feel like they have enough of a sweetheart deal they can switch to another country quickly and easily through a habit called flag hopping. 

The problem of flags of convenience remains a problem throughout the ships life. Several nations including St. Kitts and Nevis, Palau, and Comoros offer packages with extremely limited regulation for ships at the end of their lifespan heading to the scrapyard. It is quite possible that these ships may be less than seaworthy, be causing environmental damage, or may be scrapped or abandoned in an illegal method. 

Unfortunately, the dangers of flags of convivence is not the only issue that sailors face. Many sailors are abandoned or left on ships for years after their owner has abandoned the ship. They stay because they are afraid that if they leave the ships then they will never be paid. Statistics have been logged according to ABC news that in some years two thousand people and over one hundred and fifty ships are abandoned worldwide. Possible reasons that the ships and crews are abandoned are because the shipowner does not have or does not want to cover operating expenses, the unexpected repair, or because they have taken on more debt than they can afford. Sometimes promises are made to eventually return wages, sometimes not. It is rare if ever that the flags of convenience nations intervene to support the abandoned sailors on ships registered in their nation. 

A final problem facing sailors worldwide is slavery. Many of the sailors come from nations that do not enforce human rights at home or are susceptible to corruption and as a result do little to protect their citizens. Sailors are often promised high wages when they join a crew only to find out that they have to file a large promissory deposit before they can earn their wages and are often provided with much lower wages while working a tremendous amount of hours each week. It is easy to effectively imprison the crew as the sea provides a formidable barrier to escape. Due to these difficult challenges quite often the boat’s captain is in charge and too often they are not a force for good. 

Americans and citizens of the world desire cheap electronics and goods and count on the seafarers of the world to fulfil their desires, at times even bordering on greed. Much like the rest of the world, the typical mantra of out of sight out of mind holds true for these seafarers as they are typically able to be abused far from anyone’s sight. In order to clean up seafaring for everyone’s benefit we need to end the tradition of flags of convenience and tighten regulation so that we can also avoid the scourge of abandoned sailors and slavery upon the high seas. We must do this work, immediately, because as Bishop Desmond Tutu reminds us, “if you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” 


Flags of convenience – NGO Shipbreaking Platform
WHAT ARE THEY? The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) provides for the primary responsibility for…

What is a Flag of Convenience and is it Needed? | Naylor Law
The ship operates and is taxed under the laws of the country for which it is flagged. Click here to learn more about a…

Seabound: The Journey to Modern Slavery on the High Seas – Greenpeace Southeast Asia
For several years now, international media has shone a spotlight on the inhumane working conditions of migrant fishers…

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