Exhibit of horrors docks in Baltimore Protest: A consortium of maritime unions has turned an old cargo ship into a way to protest the practice of registering ships under a "flag of convenience" to save money on taxes and labor.

October 16, 1998|By Robert Little | Robert Little,SUN STAFF

Hold No. 3, deep within the dark steel hull of the British ship Global Mariner, once carried pallets of cargo around the world.

Today, it's the "disaster room."

The aft bulkhead is covered with a giant color photograph of men injured at sea -- a body crushed by a piston, a hand severed by a slammed hatch cover. To starboard is the scorched hull of the hijacked passenger ferry Achille Lauro. Toward the bow: the bulk carrier Flare, which broke in half off the coast of Newfoundland in January.

The images are part of an exhibition docked in Baltimore this weekend, sponsored by a consortium of maritime unions that converted the old cargo vessel into a floating protest of "flag of convenience" sailing. It will be open to the public through early Monday afternoon.

Each of the ships involved in those disasters was registered not in its country of ownership but in places that the International Transport Workers' Federation consider substandard, nontraditional maritime nations. Whether the incidents would have been averted if the ships sailed under a different flag of registry, the unions can't say. But they can shock people into wondering.

"I want people to be shocked, I want people to be appalled," said John A. Sansone Jr., a director of the American ITF office in Washington. "We want to show the public what the ship owners can get away with."

International maritime law does not require ship owners to register vessels in their home ports, and the tax and labor requirements in nations like the United States are such that few do. By "flagging" a vessel in a country like Liberia or Panama, ship owners enjoy greatly reduced taxes and much less stringent labor requirements.

Sea-Land Service Inc., a subsidiary of CSX Corp. and the largest American-owned steamship line, recently re-flagged five ships to the registry of the Marshall Islands in the western Pacific. The reduced labor charges and taxes save the company about $3 million per ship a year, according to Chris Koch, a Sea-Land spokesman.

"It's significant and nearly all of it is the labor," Koch said. "The U.S. flag requires us to spend more money."

One reason the ITF objects to sailing under a flag of convenience is obvious: It costs the unions jobs. Ships flagged in the United States, for instance, must use American workers, pay American wage rates and pay a penalty for repairs made in foreign shipyards. Moving the ship to a flag of convenience avoids all that.

"The shoreside equivalent would be a company moving its plant to Mexico to hire cheap labor," said Philip Clegg, secretary of the American Radio Association, a union of maritime

communications officers.

But members also say they object to less stringent safety standards that the other countries allow. American-flagged vessels must comply with Coast Guard safety regulations everywhere they sail, and ships flagged in most industrialized nations face similar requirements. But flag-of-convenience vessels need only be seaworthy and face periodic inspection if sailing in American waters.

In September, 41 vessels flying the Panamanian flag called in Baltimore compared to 11 registered in the United States, according to the Baltimore Maritime Exchange. Liberia was the flag of registry for 14 vessels; Malta and the Bahamas, 10 each.

Though nearly every major ship owner flags vessels in flag-of-convenience states, Sansone said major carriers like Sea-Land still comply with strict safety standards and are rarely a problem. "It's the small owners and the rust-buckets we're most worried about," he said.

The Global Mariner, flying a British flag and sailing with a British crew, is on an 18-month tour of the world. The costs of operating the ship, and the renovations that converted it into an exhibit, are being underwritten by the ITF.

The Global Mariner is docked at Pier 4 of the North Locust Point Marine Terminal, off McComas Street, and will be open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. though Sunday. It will close a few hours earlier on Monday to prepare for sailing. Admission is free.

Pub Date: 10/16/98

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