Magazine article UNESCO Courier

Galley Slaves

Magazine article UNESCO Courier

Galley Slaves

Article excerpt

Recruited by unscrupulous shipowners to sail in rust buckets flying flags of convenience, many sailors leave their rights ashore.

Don is from Sri Lanka. I met him in the Greek port of Piraeus. A victim of his country's civil war, his wife and two of his three children were killed when someone blew up the bus they were on. To support his surviving child, Don decided to go to sea. In Madras, he embarked on a freighter bound for Canada.

When the ship called at Halifax, Nova Scotia, Don checked the time it was due to leave before going ashore. But when he came back earlier than the scheduled embarkation time, the ship was gone. He had no identity papers - the captain had confiscated them when he signed up - and no money. He was taken in at a seamen's hostel where he managed to find legal assistance.

To prove he was telling the truth, Don wrote a long, detailed report on the ship's cargo and on events that had occurred during the voyage and gave the names of the rest of the crew. The document was sent to the Center for Seamen's Rights in New York, where it was checked and certified as accurate. The Canadian agents of the ship's Greek owner were ordered to buy Don a plane ticket home, but they refused to pay him his back wages.

Don, who still works at sea despite his ordeal, is a modern-day galley slave - exploited, badly paid or not paid at all - recruited by a front company to crew dilapidated ships often flying a flag of convenience.

One-third of the world's 37,000 cargo ships fly such flags. There is no link between the shipowner and the country of registration. All the owner has to do is sign up at a consulate anywhere in the world and pay. According to one London University transport economist, "companies register their ships under these flags so as to maximize profits and minimize costs by avoiding economic regulations and requirements which apply to vessels registered in their own countries."

They are spoiled for choice - twenty-seven countries offer the facility, which is purely a matter of money. Registering a ship in Cyprus is 65 per cent cheaper than in Greece and even less expensive if the country chosen is a tax haven like Panama, Bermuda or Gibraltar. …

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