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ITF Blacklists African FOCs

Two African countries, Gabon and Eswatini, have been added to the International Transport Workers’ Federation’s (ITF) blacklist in an effort to expose the murky world of Flags of Convenience (FOC). There are worries regarding the mistreatment of mariners and their involvement in the transportation of oil that is sanctioned as these nations join 42 others on the list.

An FOC vessel operates under the flag of a country different from its actual ownership. This enables shipowners to potentially avoid taxes, bypass safety regulations, and employ cheap labor, often at the expense of crew welfare. The ITF argues that such practices are facilitated by a lack of oversight and accountability in these FOC countries.

According to ITF president Paddy Crumlin, “it’s a toxic industry,” pointing out the lack of rules and misuse possibilities. He underlines that proper practices and crew safety are neglected in favor of using FOCs as a short cut to increase money.

Businesses looking to cut expenses or get around rules are drawn to FOC registries. This may entail using less expensive labor, avoiding taxes, concealing ownership, or even disobeying safety regulations. However, there is a substantial human cost involved: an estimated 50% of the world’s marine fleet operates under FOCs, potentially putting sailors in dangerous working circumstances.

The top three FOC countries – Panama, Liberia, and the Marshall Islands – control a staggering 40% of the international fleet. This dominance raises concerns about the effectiveness of international law, specifically the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which mandates a “genuine link” between a ship and its flag state.

David Heindel, chair of the ITF Seafarers’ Section, emphasizes the importance of this genuine link in identifying ship owners and holding them accountable. He argues that allowing FOCs to operate with lower standards undermines traditional national registries and creates a system ripe for exploitation.

Gabon and Eswatini are two recent additions that raise serious concerns because of their possible role in the transit of oil that is sanctioned via “dark fleets.” There are worries about possible sanctions violations because these fleets don’t operate with much openness. Interestingly, since sanctions were placed on Russia for its invasion of Ukraine, Gabon’s FOC register has experienced a notable increase.

By taking this action, the ITF is raising awareness of the possible risks that could be present in the global shipping industry. The ITF is calling for tougher laws and enforcement to safeguard seafarers and guarantee a more open and responsible maritime sector by drawing attention to the exploitative practices made possible by FOCs.

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