ITF wins back wages for ship's crew
by Roy Rydell The International Transport Workers Federation (ITF) has been struggling since 1945 to protect the seamen working on Flag of Convenience (FOC) vessels from super-exploitation. There are at least 6,000 FOC vessels flying the Panamanian flag, ranging from cruise ships to bulk carriers. The ITF has been successful in forcing many of the ships flying flags of convenience to sign ITF contracts that lay out wages and conditions of employment. The big problem for the ITF comes when they try to enforce the contract. Typical of this problem is what took place in Bayonne, N.J., during the week of April 3. Ricky Esopa, a former port agent for the National Maritime Union and now an ITF inspector, got a message from the Ukrainian crew of the motor vessel "Baron". This ship, a tanker of 38,500 dead weight tons, is owned by the Magnus Carriers Corp., a Greek company, but flies the flag of Malta. The crew asked the inspector to come aboard the vessel and investigate "double booking", a practice on the part of the ship's captain, in collusion with the company. Double booking shows the crew being paid wages much higher than they are actually receiving. Esopa asked to see the books and confirmed the crew's charges of a phony wage account. When the ITF inspector told the crew about the double booking, the crew demanded all the proper wages due them. They threatened to strike if not properly paid. Esopa informed them that he would be back in the morning and that the skipper should inform the owners about the situation or the ship would not sail. The next morning, Esopa spoke by phone with a Mr Stathis, the operations manager for Magnus Carriers. Esopa repeated the crew's demand that the company send the wages due or the ship would not sail. At that point, the ship's captain offered Esopa $10,000 if he would just leave the ship. Esopa said he told the captain to put the money back in the safe and that the captain would do better if he started to calculate the back wages due the crew. Esopa told the skipper that if the company did not send the money he would have the ship arrested by a US marshal, an act that involves getting a court order from a US district judge. The marshal then puts a seal on the ship's wheel and seals the doors to the ship's bridge. The ship was allowed to anchor at the Stapleton Anchorage and then shifted to Linden, N.J., to finish discharging. The next day Esopa got a message that the crew's wages would arrive in New York on April 5. Esopa said that on April 7 the crew phoned to say that a company representative had gone aboard the ship and told the crew that they would be paid in full in US dollars, but that when the ship sailed he expected the crew to return the money. If they did not, the company would have the manning agency in Russia blackball the crew. Esopa went to the ship and said that because of the attempted intimidation of the crew he would not only arrest the ship but have penalty wages applied to wages due, as per US maritime law, and see that all crew members be repatriated immediately at the company's expense. At this point the shipowner denied any knowledge of the demand for the wages to be returned. The owner also agreed that the crew be paid a bonus for taking the vessel to a Venezuelan port and that they would be sent home from there. The difference between what they were paid during the voyage and what was due them came to $122,133. According to Esopa, the average crew member on this ship was being cheated out of $1,000 a month. Esopa said that they have a confirmed letter from the company as to who will be repatriated. To prove just how common the practice of cheating seamen out of their wages is, "The New York Times" had a short report May 14 on the crew of the "Agios Minas", a Greek-operated ship. After discharging its cargo in Brunswick, Ga., in February, the ship anchored off the coast awaiting orders. It received word that the company was bankrupt. The crew stayed with the ship at anchor for 48 days and got some food and water from the International Seamen's House. Now the crew is waiting for the ship to be sold and are hoping to get paid then. Jose Orlando Galiano of El Salvador said, "We were completely abandoned. The owners only cared about themselves, not the worker".
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