European campaign week against flags of convenience leads to 32 agreements in German ports

Between 12 May and 16 May 1997, transport trade unions throughout Europe organised boycotts, strikes and demonstrations as part of the European action week against flag of convenience (FOC) shipping. FOC ships were checked in all German ports, and a total of 32 agreements were made between the International Transport Workers' Federation and ship-owners in German ports.

The ITF campaign

Between 12 May and 16 May 1997, transport trade unions throughout Europe organised boycotts, strikes and demonstrations during the European week of action against substandard and flag of convenience (FOC) shipping. Coordinated by the London based International Transport Workers' Federation (ITF), the action took place against owners of flag of convenience ships in 17 European countries. Suspect ships were tracked from port to port across the continent. The demand from the ITF was to force shipowners to recognise unions and to sign up for collective agreements which provide for minimum pay of USD 1,100 per month, inclusive of 120 hours overtime and five days' holidays. The ITF intends to enforce international minimum standards of employment on those shipowners who choose to operate their vessels under FOCs. The move followed a first week of action in June 1996 which saw 22 separate boycott actions, involving seafarers and dockers, and resulted in some 43 collective bargaining agreements being signed. In the second week of action ITF-affiliated trade union inspectors were checking to see that agreements were being adhered to, as well as inspecting ships where no approved agreements exist.

In Germany, the campaign was organised by the public sector and transport employees' union Gewerkschaft Öffentliche Dienste, Transport und Verkehr (ÖTV). All seafarers and dockers in the ports from Emden to Rostock were called upon to take part in the action against "agreement-free" ships.

Background to the ITF campaign against flags of convenience

Countries which offer their maritime flag registration to owners from another country are considered "flag of convenience" countries. By transferring a ship from a genuine national register to an FOC, an owner can avoid taxation, safety regulations and trade union organisation. There is no officially recognised definition of FOC status. The" ITF List" is drawn up by a joint committee of ITF seafarers' and dockers' unions that runs the ITF campaign against FOCs. Countries are added to the List according to certain criteria, the most important being that a majority of vessels in a register are foreign-owned or -controlled. The ITF recognises any ship which is owned in a different country than that of its flag as an FOC. Vessels genuinely owned in designated FOC states are considered as national flag. In cases where registers fall between the two, each ship is examined individually. Finally, there are the "Second Registers", additional registers that copy FOCs in many respects, but consist mostly of nationally-owned vessels. In 1993, the ITF designated the German Second Register (GIS) as FOC.

In many cases, working conditions on FOCs are reported to be of a low standard. According to Mark Dickinson, assistant general secretary of the ITF, crews routinely suffer threats if they complain or if they try to join a trade union. Dieter Benze, an ÖTV shipping expert, states that in extreme cases employment on FOC ships resembles slavery. Cases are reported where FOCs employed seafarers solely for free board and accommodation, and where crews were abandoned without pay, cheated out of their wages or put in danger through poor health and safety provisions. Other ships pay able seafarers between USD 250 and USD 1,000 in wages per month. In Germany, seafarers receive three times this amount.

To avoid the threat of action by the ITF, shipowners have to establish a genuine link between the ownership of the vessel and its flag. Alternatively, the shipowner must undertake an agreement to maintain decent conditions on board and pay a minimum level of wages. About a quarter of FOCs are covered by agreements with the ITF, which issues a "blue certificate" to identify such vessels. The scheme gives protection to about 70,000 seafarers. Out of a total of 12,000 ships worldwide, workers on 4,000 are paid according to ITF agreements. Most of the German owners have already accepted ITF agreements. In Germany, 750 merchant ships sail under the flag of Germany and 800 ships under foreign flags.

The employers' reactions to the campaign

The employers' body, the International Shipping Federation (ISF) branded the ITF campaign "more verbal threats than real action" with "little, if any" action taking place in most countries. Furthermore, it reminded its members that the law in most countries outlaws secondary action by dockworkers. A circular to members outlined favourable judgments in labour courts in both Antwerp and Rotterdam. The ISF contended that seafarers and dockworkers in most ports would continue to work as normal and warned against any attempts by ITF officials or other activists to intimidate masters and crew members. Furthermore, the ISF called off a planned meeting with maritime trade unionists on ways of eliminating substandard employment practices which was requested by the ITF.

The Association of German Shipowners (Verband Deutscher Reeder, VDR) criticised the ITF/ÖTV action week as "illegal, hypocritical and bad". The association has reprimanded the ÖTV for urging the ITF to declare the German second register a flag of convenience. According to the VDR, union boycotts jeopardise Germany's position in international trade, make a flag more expensive and destroy jobs. Furthermore, although having approved international minimum standards set by the International Labour Organisation for wages in the shipping industry, the ITF had then independently set far higher standards and wanted to enforce these via a boycott. The VDR stated that the ITF was illegally attempting to interfere with agreements which have been negotiated with foreign unions. It also claimed it was illegal to take industrial action on the issue of competing wage agreements. It would be up to the industrial tribunals to solve such problems.

Results I: the facts

Owners of about 120 vessels made approaches to the ITF during the seven-day notice period leading up to the week of action, and 13 agreements were made in German ports before the action week started. By this action, owners were hoping to escape the threat of boycott and demonstrations by agreeing to new terms for their crews. During the action week, FOC ships were checked all over Europe. Action was taken by dockers and seafarers in 17 countries from Iceland to Israel delivering results in improved terms and conditions for more than 1,500 seafarers and the recovery of USD 2 million in back pay. Successful boycotts were held in Portugal, Romania and Croatia for the first time. Ships were also arrested in Italy, Britain and Finland. Inspectors from the ITF visited 570 ships during the week and signed about 90 ITF wage agreements.

However, the core actions took place in the Rhine ports and Germany. FOC ships were checked in all German ports and FOC ships were boycotted in the ports of Hamburg, Rostock, Bremen, Bremerhaven and Brake. A total of 32 agreements were made between the ITF and ship owners in German ports. Furthermore, a company based in the port of Hamburg tried unsuccessfully to have the boycott call stopped in court. The Hamburg Labour Court rejected an appeal by Hansa Umschlagsgesellschaft, a stevedoring company, against an earlier ruling allowing German dockers to take action.

Results II: the statements of the social partners

The ITF and the ÖTV consider the campaign against FOCs successful. The ITF stated that the German court decision was the icing on the cake, and bodes well for the future of the campaign in Europe. Furthermore, that decision represented an important legal breakthrough in their campaign against open registry ships. The ITF had long been looking for such a victory because its room to manoeuvre is hampered in most European countries by restrictions on secondary industrial action. A spokesperson for the ÖTV said: "We have won the legal right to boycott in Germany." The ITF is thinking about repeating the campaign in other parts of the world.

The ISF insisted that the extent of the action was limited. Of 700 ports in the European Union, boycott activity had occurred in perhaps 12 ports, most of it in countries where such action was already a well-known risk. The ISF said cases of alleged boycotts which it investigated turned out to have been minor delays usually of under one hour. The ISF contends that if crew have not been paid the wages to which they are entitled under their contracts, then the law should intervene, and if conditions on board do not meet international regulatory standards, the port state control authorities should take action. Furthermore the ISF stated that it was right to expose exploitation and isolated instances of abuse, and that the employment of crew at sweatshop rates must be regarded as unfair competition. Employers had indeed, under the aegis of theInternational Labour Office, collaborated in devising codes of practice to outlaw bad practice in the operation of crewing agencies and in the provision of basic rights, terms and conditions - such as the ILO minimum wages for seafarers or the ILO Convention No. 147 on minimum standards on merchant ships. What the ISF did not accept was for the ITF to dictate its own standards.


Although conflicting accounts emerged of how successful the FOC campaign really was, there are important implications for international and European industrial relations.

First, the campaign shows that trade unions are increasingly establishing closer links across national frontiers, and that there are efforts being made to organise and conduct cross-border and Europe-wide industrial action. The ITF international campaign of 9 June 1997 to cut excessive working hours among lorry, bus and coach drivers is another example.

Second, employers are first and foremost competitors in product markets and therefore face problems in organising collective countervailing action, nationally as well as internationally.

Third, when it comes to collective bargaining and even to collective agreements at international or European level, several open questions remain: Who negotiates with whom on what issue, on whose behalf, and under what jurisdiction? Who is partner to the agreement? What is the legal status of the agreement? Who checks and enforces the agreement? What are the dispute resolution procedures?

Fourth, the 120 approaches made by ship owners to the ITF and the 13 agreements made in German ports during the seven-day notice period before the action week started might imply that, at least in those cases, the seafarers were not being paid the wages they could have been paid. Whether and to what extent this falls under the label "exploitation" deserves further investigation. (Stefan Zagelmeyer, IW)

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