A story posted by Politico on March 11 focused on how the United States could not effectively deal with the recent coronavirus health scares aboard foreign-flag cruise ships, even though a great many Americans were passengers.
“The cruise industry disproportionately counts Americans as customers but operates primarily in international waters and avoids tough scrutiny by registering ships mostly in small Caribbean countries with little incentive to enforce international treaties,” wrote Tanya Snyder in an article titled “Coronavirus on the High Seas: Why the U.S. Can’t Touch Cruise Lines.”
“That has led to a hodgepodge of loosely enforced standards, which regulators in the U.S. won’t be able to change quickly,” the story added.
The article identifies the cruise lines sailing under so-called “flags of convenience,” a system the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) has fought against for decades. (The SIU is affiliated with the London-based ITF, which is composed of more than 650 transportation-related unions from 150 countries.)
The flag-of-convenience (FOC) system, also known as runaway flags, allows vessel owners from one nation to register their ships in a different country that features lower standards for worker qualifications, safety, pay and taxes, and hire crews from still other nations. (Like the ITF, the SIU also has fought against FOCs for many years.)
“In essence, cruise ships are a regulatory black hole,” Snyder wrote.
The Politico story listed several attempts by members of the Congress to upgrade the United States’ ability to better enforce health and safety policies on cruise ships with American passengers. These attempts have failed.
More recently, international media focused on passengers on several cruise ships being stranded aboard their vessels because the coronavirus was detected among both the crew and tourists. Once a ship docks, according to Politico, a country can apply some jurisdiction.
“A Japanese infectious diseases expert was allowed onto the Diamond Princess, where more than 600 passengers were infected with the coronavirus, released a video on YouTube blasting the ‘chaotic’ process to try to control the spread of the disease on board the ship, conducted by people with no background in infection control,” Snyder wrote.
Cruise lines have been among the hardest hit during the recent stock market downturn, which led to talk about a possible bailout for the industry, much of which is based in Florida.
When Politico reached out to the chairman of the House Transportation Committee, U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Oregon), regarding such a proposal, he replied, “They aren’t American. They don’t pay taxes in the United States of America. If they want to reflag their ships … and pay U.S. wages and pay U.S. taxes, then maybe.”
FOC cruise lines did not receive money in the relief bill that was enacted in late March. Meanwhile, the ITF over the years has brought thousands of FOC cargo ships under ITF contract while striving to promote a genuine link between flag states and vessels. As pointed out by the ITF, for workers, runaway-flag shipping can mean “very low wages, poor on-board conditions, inadequate food and clean drinking water, and long periods of work without proper rest, leading to stress and fatigue.”
The federation further notes that by “flagging out, shipowners can take advantage of minimal regulation, cheap registration fees, low or no taxes, and freedom to employ cheap labor from the global labor market.”