seafarersCan we build a new global unionism through international campaigns? This article looks at what we can learn from the highly successful maritime internationalism of the ITF’s Flags of Convenience campaign. As you’re reading this, think about how such an approach might be developed within your own sector.

At first glance international shipping does not appear the most natural terrain for effective international solidarity. It is a highly competitive industry where capital is mobile in the most literal way. And for nearly 80 years ship owners have adopted Flags of Convenience – the practice of registering ships outside the country of ownership – to avoid regulation, and particularly restrictions on sourcing labour from low wage countries.

The International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF), however, has continually challenged this attempted race to the bottom with impressive results. Over sixty years, the Flag of Convenience (FOC) campaign has developed strong industrial, institutional, and political dimensions. Built on the bedrock of solidarity between dockers’ and seafarers’ unions, the FOC campaign has developed an international collective bargaining framework, a strong enforcement mechanism, and the capacity to influence supra-national state regulation.

One of the most remarkable features of the FOC campaign has been the sustained solidarity between seafarers’ and dockers’ unions. The campaign officially began in 1948, when a joint committee of seafarers and dockers unions was formed amid growing concern about working conditions on FOC ships. The first boycott of an FOC ship took place in 1949, and over the coming decades the FOC campaign steadily developed its industrial teeth. The four day PanLibHonCo boycott in 1958 caused major delays for 200-300 vessels under the flags of Panama, Liberia, Honduras and Costa Rica, and ultimately led Costa Rica to withdraw its FOC registry (Llewellyn 2013).

The Blue Card

All FOC vessels that are covered by an ITF-acceptable agreement are issued with a certificate (aka Blue Card) by the ITF Secretariat. This signifies the ITF’s acceptance of the wages and working conditions on board. About a quarter of FOC vessels are currently covered by these agreements, giving direct protection to over 123,000 seafarers. Needless to say, ships without this certificate, or the mutual good faith it implies, get a cold reception at times. This campaign has succeeded in enforcing decent minimum wages and conditions on board nearly 5,000 FOC ships. More:

thinker_smallYou can find out more about the design of these crucial agreements here:

We invite you to consider how this approach might inform a strategy based on global framework agreements, or supply chain agreements.

Despite intermittent industrial action, however, the ITF was unable to reverse the growth of FOCs. Gradually, the campaign’s focus shifted from abolishing the FOC system altogether to improving conditions on FOC ships. In 1971 the ITF Standard Agreement was launched, a compulsory collective agreement for ship owners who wanted to avoid boycotts. Within just a few years 420 such agreements were signed (Llewellyn, 2013).

Ship owners were far from happy about these developments. They sought to weaken the FOC campaign in two main ways. Industrial boycotts were increasingly challenged through the courts, and by the 1980s it was acknowledged that industrial action was becoming much more difficult for dockers’ unions.

Ship owners also attempted to exploit the geographical divisions between seafarers’ unions. The relatively high terms of the ITF Standard Agreement – which was originally designed as a deterrent for using FOCs – resulted in tensions between unions in the high wage ‘capital supply’ (or ship owning) countries and the lower wage ‘labour supply’ countries. Labour supply unions sometimes claimed that the terms of ITF agreements amounted to protectionism. Ship owners sought to exploit these potential divisions and induce labour supply unions to unofficially undercut ITF agreements.

The ship owners’ divide-and-rule tactics would ultimately be thwarted by the FOC campaign’s evolving institutional basis. From the late 1970s onwards, the ITF developed a network of inspectors. These inspectors were typically docker or seafarer union activists seconded to the ITF, and relied on a combination of legal provisions and the industrial power of maritime unions to board and inspect ships.  Originally tasked with taking actions against FOC ships without ITF agreements, during the 1980s inspectors also began to enforce the terms of ITF agreements through the courts. As Lillie shows, the ITF won a number of judgments against ship owners for the practice of double book keeping (signing an agreement but paying well below the stipulated wages) (Lillie, 2004). There are now over 140 ITF inspectors around the world, representing a considerable enforcement capacity for the FOC campaign.

Another key strength of the FOC campaign has been its ability to foster new seafarers’ unions on the shipping industry’s geographical frontiers. The initial aim of the FOC campaign was to abolish the FOC system altogether, and protect the terms and conditions of seafarers in capital supply countries. But as unions in other sectors have also found, it has not been possible to completely prevent the mobility of jobs to low wage countries. A major achievement of the campaign, however, has been to make sure that labour organisation has moved with the changing geography of the industry. The labour movement often lags behind the mobility of capital, but the campaign has quickened the pace of union development in various ways.

At the most basic level, all seafarers working on ships covered by ITF agreements are covered by terms and conditions. For many seafarers from labour supply countries, collective bargaining coverage came before active union membership. However, the FOC campaign includes a major focus on union development. The system of ITF agreements has provided a framework for new unions to develop and enforce their rights. A recent focus on bilateral relations between unions from labour supply and capital supply countries, with each union agreeing to share responsibilities to represent seafarers on a given ship, has added a further layer to union development and solidarity.

Perhaps unusually, the continual expansion of the labour supply has actually served to strengthen the unity of seafarers unions vis-à-vis employers. For example, the fall of the Eastern Bloc resulted in a large number of seafarers coming onto the international market, particularly from Russia and the Ukraine. Faced with this sudden influx of potentially even cheaper labour, seafarers’ unions found their interests more closely aligned. The new Eastern Bloc unions, for their part, were highly dependent on the ITF for basic development assistance, and quickly withdrew their requests for lower ‘regional’ rates in favour of integration into the FOC campaign (Lillie, 2004)

The long term strengthening of the FOC system forced the ship owners to change their strategy. Up until the 1990s they had attempted to resist the FOC campaign through a strategy of divide and rule. They were now faced with an ITF that had developed the capacity of seafarers unions from the bottom up, and an increasingly effective regulatory system from the top down via the inspectorate and system of agreements. At the same time, events such as Adriatic Tankers collapse in 1995-96, which left seafarers on 49 vessels abandoned, convinced some employers that there needed to be a ‘respectable’ face to the FOC system (see Couper et al. 1999). Both of these factors led major employers to organise themselves collectively for the first time (Lillie 2004). This resulted in the formation of the International Bargaining Forum (IBF) in 2003, where ship owners joined together in order to bargain over collective agreements rather than face the unilateral imposition of ITF agreements. Today around one quarter of all FOC vessels, including the fleets of most of the world’s largest ship owners, are covered by IBF agreements.

The foundations of the FOC campaign have also served as a platform to secure wider labour market regulation.  In 2012 the Maritime Labour Convention was ratified, after extensive lobbying and campaigning by the ITF. Ratified by nearly all major maritime nations, the MLC sets out basic rights for all seafarers, including a range of employment rights relating to the length of the working day, on board accommodation, and social protection. What makes the MLC distinctive is its unusually strong enforcement capacity (by the standards of international regulation). ‘Port states’ (the port where a ship is calling at any given time) are obliged to enforce the MLC, and unions can request inspections from the Port State when vessels are in port.

Implications for global unionism going forward

It is sometimes said that the FOC campaign is unique, and thus hard to replicate for unions in other sectors. There is some truth to this as the FOC campaign is the result of a unique constellation of factors: the internationalised nature of shipping; the long standing relations between different maritime unions; and perhaps the fact that international waters represent a regulatory grey area where some governments and employers have grudgingly approved of the ITF leadership.

While the exact FOC system itself may be difficult to replicate, it is nonetheless a powerful example of what can be achieved through sustained international and cross-sectoral co-operation. The long standing relationships between seafarers’ and dockers’ unions generated pressure that continually forced employers to come to the table. In order to do this it was important to sustain this international coalition over a long period of time. It effectively took 50 years before employers felt the need to collectively bargain with the ITF. By this time the union had developed the industrial and institutional capacity that made engagement with the ITF the best alternative.

This is a lesson that the ITF is trying to apply in its own organising strategies. The 1990s also saw increasing attacks on dock workers. These attacks, combined with the rapid expansion of the port sector in new trading zones of Asia, Latin America led to the launch of the Ports of Convenience campaign, which is intended to translate the historical achievements of the FOC campaign into the port sector. This has also generated a broader discussion about supply chain organising. The ITF now puts a high importance on building out from its areas of traditional strength, and is looking to organise not just in the fast growing ‘land logistics’ sectors, but also link with unions in other sectors such as extraction, manufacturing, and retail sectors who sit and up and down stream from transport workers in global supply chains.


Further reading

Anna Llewellyn (2013) The FOC Campaign – we’ve come a long way. ITF Seaferers Bulletin, forthcoming

Nathan Lillie (2004) Global Collective Bargaining on Flag of Convenience Shipping British Journal of Industrial Relations. 42:1 March, pp. 47–67

Couper, A, Walsh, B, Stanberry, A and Boerne, G (1999) Voyages of Abuse: Seafarers, Human Rights and International Shipping London: Pluto