Sunday, April 15, 2007

Belching out black smoke

If you drive a car in the Republic of Ireland (and most EU countries) you have to have your vehicle tested every two years for safety, equipment, lights, and carbon emissions. The government requires it to be done and you're legally obliged to have a National Car Test (NCT) certificate once the car is two years old or more.

I wish it applied to ships too, especially those of the Irish Naval Service.

A few days ago I saw a pall of thick black smoke over the harbour near Haulbowline Island where the Naval Service is based (in most other countries it's called the navy, but not here). Then I noticed one of the naval ships about a half mile ahead of the smoke and I soon saw that it was the source of the smoke. The smoke was so black and thick that I couldn't make out which naval ship it was, but I could see by its stern that it was one of the older ones which have a rounded stern whereas the newer ones have a flat transom. It was probably the 27 year old L.E. Emer or Aoife.

Honestly the smoke looked like it came from the old days of coal fired boilers. Obviously all powered ships (unless they are electric or solar powered) give off a certain amount of smoke, but this was ridiculous and the black pall hovered over the harbour for half an hour after the ship had gone because it was a flat-calm, windless day.

If I have to service my car then the navy, sorry, naval service should do the same. Get them ships serviced boys.

Flags of Convenience = danger for sailors

Yesterday (April 14th) a chemical tanker, m.v. West Sailor, was towed to Cork Dockyard after a fire in its engineroom had crippled the ship shortly after it had delivered a cargo of sulphuric acid at the port of Foynes in the Shannon Estuary for the Aughinish Alumina factory.

It has been reported that seven of the ship's fifteen crew members want to leave the ship because conditions on board are so bad. After the fire crew had to sleep in cabins directly over where the fire had taken place and one is being treated for smoke inhalation. The International Transport Federation (ITF) - the international union for seafarers - visited the ship and expressed concern for the safety of the ship's crew.

The West Sailor is registered in the Maltese port of Valetta. Now Malta is known as a Flag of Convenience country. The ITF describe Flag of Convenience (FOC) as follows: "FOCs provide a means of avoiding labour regulation in the country of ownership, and become a vehicle for paying low wages and forcing long hours of work and unsafe working conditions. Since FOC ships have no real nationality, they are beyond the reach of any single national seafarers' trade union".

Since I was very young I have been fascinated with ships and would look at every ship's flag and stern to find out where it was from. In Cork port, where I live, the majority of visiting ships were registered in ports like Rotterdam, Hamburg, London, Dublin or Antwerp. Nowadays most are registered in Flag of Convenience countries.

As I write there are just seven ships in Cork Port which is quiet (it was 15 yesterday). Of those seven, two are registered in Antigua & Barbuda, with one each from Gibraltar, the Cayman Islands, the French Antartic Territory, Panama and Malta. Every single ship is FOC registered.

This means that ships crew are on lower pay, work in poorer conditions, generally non unionised and of course the rules regarding ship safety go out the window too. If you register a ship in the Port of Cork, for example, you will have to conform to EU and Irish safety law, the Irish minimum wage and the crew are entitled by law to join a trade union. Not so in Flag of Convenience countries who generally employ people from poor countries on the lowest of pay and often that pay is withheld from them and they are left penniless far away from home and usually unable to speak the local language.

Last year you may remember a big industrial dispute in Irish Ferries, which runs passenger / car ferries from Dublin and Rosslare to Britain and the European mainland. Irish Ferries likes to model itself on Ryanair and calls itself "the low fares ferry company". Irish Ferries wanted to sack all its 540 workers and replace them with foreign staff on half the pay and with worse conditions. It also wanted to re-register its ships in Cyprus, a Flag of Convenience country. There was a big row about it and the Irish trade unions threatened industrial action. The government opposed it too and a quarter of a million people took to the streets of Dublin, Cork and other cities in protest. But it didn't matter. The unions did a deal to get the best possible redundancy bargain for their members and some could keep their jobs, but all new staff would be non-union and low paid and the ships were re-registered, mostly in Cyprus.

In the end the workers were forced to accept the deal. The government did nothing except posturing and the unions accepted the deal.

The International Transprort Federations' campaign on Flag of Convenience ships deserves to be supported and this Blog is happy to support it. The ITF has more information on its website at