During the spring, ITF inspector Håkan André revealed a large number of ships under flags of convenience (FOC) that use double bookkeeping. In October he was awarded the SAN work environment prize for his persistent work.
Håkan André had worked in the port of Norrköping since he was a teenager, when SEKO Seafarers asked if he wanted to start as an inspector for the International Transport Workers Federation (ITF). He is now in his fourth year as an inspector and does not regret his change of work.
”It’s a very exciting job and so completely different from anything I’ve done in the past. Before joining them I was section chairman in the Transport Workers’ Federation in Norrköping port, and we negotiated almost everything. In this industry you have to be pleased when people get paid at all,” he says.
It is well known that Sweden and the other Nordic countries do not have to deal with the worst possible tonnage, and every year a number of substandard ships are banned from European waters. Håkan André was surprised when he came across a shipowner at the start of the year that cheated the crew on their salaries and used double bookkeeping. When it was later discovered that a large number of ships used the same system, he was even more surprised.
”I was convinced that the practice had stopped in our waters, at least on this scale, and my managers hardly believed me. But salary fraud has proved to be very common, and my work has changed from being a purely union job to something that is closer to a fight against economic crime,” he says.
According to the ITF agreement which inspectors in the Nordic countries usually sign with shipping companies, able seamen should be paid between 1600 and 1800 US dollars per month. This sum includes everything, from overtime and subsistence allowance to holiday compensation. On ships that cheat with salary payments, pay is significantly lower.
”It varies, but often the crew get about 30–40% less than in the agreement. The fear of losing their jobs means they choose to stay anyway, despite the fact that they do not receive the salary to which they are entitled.”
Since Håkan André first started to look into the problem, he noticed how shipowners tightened up their routines to avoid being disclosed. He says the accounts that are shown to him these days almost always look perfect, and that it takes a lot before crew members are willing to talk to him about the real situation.
”They are afraid of reprisals if they talk with us and want us to leave as quickly as possible,” he says.
He has no doubt that there are reasonable grounds for their concerns.
”There is talk of blacklisting and that anyone who discloses a ship-owner runs the risk not only of losing his job but perhaps not getting work with any other shipping line.”
But he still thinks he can see some overall improvements in FOC ships that stop in Swedish ports. Since the Maritime Labour Convention (MLC) came into force, cooperation between the ITF and the Swedish Transport Agency has increased and ports are stricter, in some cases denying entry to ships flying flags of convenience with no labour agreements. Work as an inspector also involves very irregular working hours with late nights, early mornings and weekends.
”But I am not complaining – I enjoy what I do very much.