Tonga's Flag Move Upsets Seamen

What this spells for American and many European merchant seamen could be massive unemployment.

The U.S. nationals who are still professional seafarers — fewer than 300 U.S.-flagged, deep-water ships remain in a fleet that once exceeded 3,500 — spend long hours hanging around union halls.

Many swap tales of memorable voyages, some of them apocryphal, pausing only to glance hopefully at job boards. Some of the more seasoned ones might get lucky and find work on a Sea Land or American President Lines container ship, although many of these no longer fly the American flag.

In a book published in 1996, William Lovett, a professor of law and economics at Tulane University in New Orleans, explained a situation, which ship captains ruefully admit, still exists today.

The maritime unions, he wrote in United States Shipping Policies and the World Market bear some of the blame for their own troubles. "Flags of convenience," he observed, prospered partly because "our mariners were too damned expensive. The unions wouldn't give on crew size and wages. We became non-competitive."

The Deadly Consequences

Through the latter years of the 1990s, ships flying the flags of convenience of Panama, Cyprus and Malta had a far worse than average safety record. In one year, 1996, data published by the Institute of London Underwriters showed that 93 people died as a result of ship casualties as in nine months.

Deregulation of coastal safety standards in some states has combined with the lax safety regulations for convenience-flagged vessels to produce disasters. For example, last year the 2,887-ton Tonga-flagged dry cargo ship, the Tavake Oma, developed a crack in a fuel pipe and leaked oil into the bay at Sydney, Australia.

Australian Maritime Safety Authority inspectors had checked the vessel earlier and found nine deficiencies, not corrected by owners and operators who allowed her to continue sailing.

"The history of flags of convenience," as the Turkish law consultant Ozcayir observes, "dates back to the Roman Empire." Today's terrorism-linked fears and such related setbacks as the suspension of the Tonga registry are unlikely to change what has become a familiar pattern in world shipping, or alter the human motivation of opportunism, which shapes it.

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