By Russell Working
May 22, 1999
Vladivoostok, Russia, May 17 - The Lakhta is a rusting hulk that usually hauls scrap metal to Japan, but since February the vessel has sat idle here in the largest port in the Russian Far East, her superstructure painted in Russian and English: "WE ARE ON STRIKE. WE WANT OUR MONEY!" So when the Global Mariner sailed into Vladivostok's Golden Horn Bay recently, its crew pitched in $720 for the sailors on the Lakhta. The Global Mariner is a 13,000-ton freighter owned by the International Transport Workers' Federation, a union of sailors, truckers, longshoremen and others. Outfitted as a form of seagoing protest, the British ship is undertaking a round-the-world voyage to fight the registration of ships under "flags of convenience" -- countries other than the place of ownership.
Flying the flag of countries like Belize or Liberia allows them to avoid heavy taxes and hire crews from low-wage countries, cutting the cost of transportation. But the union says such vessels have poor safety records, frequently do not pay employees, and sometimes abandon sailors in distant ports when aging ships get too expensive to run. The Lakhta, the union said, represents everything it is fighting.
Once owned by the Far Eastern Shipping Company, the largest transportation fleet in the Russian Pacific, the ship was sold and reflagged in Belize. The sailors are a year behind in their wages, and the owners no longer provide food or water and once even tried to evict the crew at gunpoint. The ship is caked in rust, and even her basic seaworthiness is in question. The hatch covers over the cargo holds do not fully close, a problem that could swamp the ship in high seas, said Ulrich Jurgens, the Global Mariner's captain and a union inspector, after touring the Lakhta. "If you have open hatch covers, it is basically a death sentence," he said. "This is one of the worst cases I have ever seen. What we're seeing here is inhumane. It shows less than no respect for the lives of the seafarers."
Of the world's 85,500 self-propelled cargo vessels of 100 gross tons or greater, some 16,000 are registered in the 27 countries that the union lists as flags of convenience. The practice of registering abroad began in earnest with Prohibition, when rumrunners hauled their cargoes under the Panamanian flag. But the practice has grown in recent years as shipping companies try to save money. In the eight years since the fall of Communism, 10 percent of Russia's fleet has been reflagged abroad to avoid the country's onerous taxes. Costly regulations and high-wage workers in North America, Japan and northern Europe often make it profitable for shipping companies to reflag. For example, the United States levies a 50 percent duty on any repairs to American-flagged ships in overseas ports, said Rod Vulovic, vice president of Sea-Land Service Inc., a Charlotte, N.C., unit of the CSX Corporation.
Twenty-eight of Sea-Land's 63 ships are flagged overseas, saving up to $3.5 million a vessel each year, Mr. Vulovic said. Mr. Vulovic rejects the union's charges that shipowners are cavalier toward workers and safety when their vessels sail under foreign flags. "You can have companies such as Mobil Oil that do a good job and are responsible citizens of the world," he said, "and they're put in the same bag as those who don't pay mariners and abandon ships."
But critics say foreign registries effectively allow countries to pick and choose which regulations to follow. Flag-of-convenience countries, taken as a whole, have a worse safety record than registries of ships based within a country, said Paul Lane, director of the Seafarers' Research Center of the University of Cardiff in Wales. Even more troubling, he said, is that sailors at sea are subject to the laws of the nations under which they are flagged, and maritime ministries do not effectively monitor working conditions. How well can states like Liberia or Cambodia, torn by civil strife for decades, oversee their national ships?
The International Transport Workers' Federation has fought reflagging since 1948. And last year, on the 50th anniversary of its campaign, it took its show on the road. The union bought an old freighter for $3 million. (It hopes to recoup this cost by selling the ship when her voyage ends early next year). The union spent an added $1.8 million refurbishing the ship as a floating museum. Workers decorated the Global Mariner's enormous holds with flags from "convenience" countries. They covered the bare steel walls with billboard-sized pictures depicting what it says are the legacies of such fleets: abandoned or unpaid sailors, increased shipwrecks, maimed seamen, cockroach-covered food in a ship's galley. ("A seafarers menu," the caption states). In one hold, a film shows real footage from shipwrecks on flag-of-convenience vessels. Sirens blare as rescuers pull passengers' corpses from the sea. A man grabs a child by the hair and hauls him into the boat like a drowned seal pup.
The Global Mariner set out last summer on an 18-month voyage to take its message to the world. Its campaign will cost an estimated $9 million, money that comes from fees that shipping companies pay for union members, Captain Jurgens said. The show has drawn crowds in ports ranging from Reykjavik, Iceland, to Vladivostok, with more than 300,000 visitors coming on board so far. In Vladivostok alone, 14,983 people came aboard during a four-day stay. (The Global Mariner belly-flopped, however, in New York in October: Only 100 visitors came aboard.)
The images of sailors sharing food with cockroaches can be particularly poignant in a port city like Vladivostok, where thousands of unpaid sailors work and scores of families have relatives who are stranded on vessels abroad. Maxim Pechevisty and Konstantin Strokin, both 21, are students at the Marine Academy, and they went through the Global Mariner's display twice, transfixed by the grim images of life at sea. "This shows the real conditions aboard the ships under flags of convenience," Mr. Pechevisty said. "We have come across such problems ourselves." Several crew members have sailed on Greenpeace vessels in the past, and the Global Mariner has employed similar tactics. The ship uses a high-powered projector to beam slogans onto ships run by owners it criticizes. In Louisiana the crew hung a 20-by-40-foot banner criticizing the United States Navy because of a union dispute at a shipyard in New Orleans.
But while shaming the Navy may cheer union members on the Mississippi Delta, Russia, with its crippled economy and fathomless corruption, is not so easily moved by the appearance of a union ship armed with a high-beam projector. In the case of the Lakhta, the crew has not been able to figure out just who owes them the wages. After it docked in February, the seafarers tried to sue the Dellner Shipping Company of Vladivostok, which chartered the Lakhta from the Seattle-based Caribbean Maritime, for $82,423 in back wages.
Dellner, which took over the vessel in December, says it has paid its share -- 40 days' worth -- and the previous charter operator owes the rest. When the dispute went to court, a judge threw out the sailors' case. On March 16, the court, at Dellner's request, sent a bailiff accompanied by 13 gunmen in black masks marching on board. Snipers scaled the masts, and the gunmen threatened the crew with Kalashnikov rifles, said a cook, Marina Popova, 36, and other crew members who were there. A Lakhta sailor managed to throw a matchbox onto the ship next door with a note begging for help. After a lawyer and a television crew showed up, the gunmen left.
The union's Vladivostok inspector is representing the crew, and the Global Mariner donated boxes of food and invited the Lakhta seafarers over for dinner. (Ms. Popova declined the invitation; she was ashamed that the Lakhta was too poor to return the hospitality for the foreign seafarers.) When Russian border guards refused the foreigners access to the boat, the Global Mariner crew hopped a fence to check on their comrades.
The crew of the Lakhta was hoping the arrival of the Global Mariner would change their situation by drawing attention to their plight. But then the British ship sailed from port on May 3, and the Lakhta crew watched her go from their mooring in front of a heap of scrap metal on a pier in the commercial seaport. Captain Jurgens, the Global Mariner's skipper, said he expected the Lakhta to eventually sink at its anchorage. But Mikhail Plyushchakov, Dellner's general director, remained optimistic that the Lakhta would again ply the Sea of Japan under the flag of Belize. "We'll get a new crew on board," he said. "We'll fix all the problems port inspectors tell us to fix. And we will sail again."