Background of the ITF flag of convenience campaign

Among international union organizations, the ITF is unique in that it exerts influence on wages and working conditions for a particular group of employees – seafarers on flag of convenience ships - in a powerful way. By using so-called flags of convenience, labor legislation in the shipowner’s country can be evaded, while they permit forcing long working hours under dangerous working conditions at low wages. Since flag of convenience ships do not have a nationality in the real sense, they do not belong to the organizational sphere of specific national seafarers’ unions.

The role which is traditionally carried out by unions in individual countries has therefore been shouldered by the ITF on an international level; i.e., organizing crews on flag of convenience ships and negotiating in their name. For more than 60 years - acting in capacity for its affiliated seafarers’ and dockers’ unions - the ITF has been leading an insistent campaign against shipowners deserting the flag of their origin in order to find the cheapest possible crews and lowest possible training and safety requirements for their ships.

In defining a flag of convenience, the decisive factor for the ITF is whether the nationality of the shipowner and the nationality of the flag are identical. In 1974, the ITF phrased the definition of a flag of convenience as follows: If the beneficiary ownership and control of a ship is outside the country under the flag of which the ship has been registered, then this ship is declared a flag of convenience ship.

The ITF campaign against flags of convenience, officially launched during the 1948 World Congress in the Norwegian capital of Oslo, is being run on two levels:

  • By means of an international agreement on government level, a political campaign aims at establishing a genuine link between a ship’s flag and the nationality or country of domicile of its owner, its manager and its crew members, thus completely eliminating the flag of convenience system.
  • A union campaign aims at ensuring that seafarers on flag of convenience ships - irrespective of their nationality - are protected from being exploited by shipowners.

In the course of the past 60 years, the ITF-affiliated unions in the maritime sector have developed a great number of policies to lay down acceptable minimum standards for seafarers on flag of convenience ships. Based on these principles, an ITF Standard Collective Agreement was developed, stipulating wages and working conditions for all crew members on flag of convenience ships, irrespective of nationality. As a rule, this is the only agreement offfered to shipowners in the course of labor disputes. The ITF secretariat issues so-called “ITF Blue Certificates” for all flag of convenience ships sailing with an ITF-acceptable agreement, certifying that wages and working conditions on board have been approved by the ITF. Approximately one third of all flag of convenience ships are currently covered by ITF agreeements, the regulations of which thus provide protection for more than XXX.OOO seafarers (in Mai 2009).

Day-to-day activities of the ITF
Achievements of the ITF flag of convencience campaign