They have played crucial roles in a number of political fights in New Zealand history, using their strategic location and collective strength to stop nuclear ship visits, against whaling, show solidarity with the people of East Timor and help win pay parity for women.
In the 1970s and 1980s the watersiders would take strike action or donate a days pay to protest campaigns against Apartheid or the Vietnam War. They were the most committed fighters for the global working class, against imperialism and ecological destruction.
In recent years the Maritime Union has been campaigning against lax controls on Flag of Convenience vessels like the MSC's Liberia flagged, Rena, operating on New Zealand's coasts.
The term flag of convenience describes the business practice of registering a merchant ship in a sovereign state different from that of the ship's owners, and flying that state's civil ensign on the ship. Ships are registered under flags of convenience to reduce operating costs or avoid the regulations of the owner's country. The closely related term open registry is used to describe an organization that will register ships owned by foreign entities.
In 2006 the MUNZ general secretary said, “Deregulation has failed. The global maritime free market has failed. It will require co-ordinated international action to clean up the monopolistic, unaccountable mess of Flag of Convenience shipping.”
MUNZ's long term campaign has helped expose ships which bring "death, injury and pollution" with them and have helped many crews, especially super-exploited fishing workers, win victories on wages and workers' rights against Flag of Convenience shipping operators.
Yet although MUNZ has provided crucial support to every group of workers that is engaged in industrial struggle in New Zealand from cleaners to retail workers, from young fast food cooks to engineers, the trade union movement, the wider working-class community has done too little to show support back. Ridding New Zealand coasts of Flag of Convenience ships was never a priority. The shipping corporations have got rich, the workers have been treated poorly and a major environmental disaster was only around the corner. The alarm bells should have sounded in 2002 when a Flag of Convenience registered ship, the Jody F. Millenium ran aground in Gisborne and polluted 8km of coast with 25 tonnes of oil.
MUNZ's warnings of the danger of Flag of Convenience shipping were ignored by Labour and National. Flag of Convenience vessels have been involved in many, high profile oil spills as a result of their lax safety and poor conditions. Deepwater Horizon, the oil rig that destroyed the Gulf of Mexico, was also a Flag of Convenience vessel.
The U.S. Coast Guard just released a preliminary report about the Deepwater Horizon oil rig. The Coast Guard criticized not only rig owner, Transocean, but the foreign registry in the Marshall Islands (flag below) where Transocean registered the rig. Just like a cruise ship, the Deepwater Horizon oil rig was considered to be a vessel which had to be registered.In fact, avoiding responsibility for oil spills is one of the main reasons that ship owners register their vessels in Flag of Convenience nations,
In 1999, a oil tanker called the Erika sank off Brittany and polluted 250 miles of French coastline. The French government could not penetrate a chain of shell companies in seven countries that stood between the ship and its owner. The owner eventually came forward voluntarily and, when questioned by the BBC about the complex ownership arrangements, said, “That is standard practice in shipping.”If politicians are serious about preventing more oil spills in New Zealand then they will have to show support for the campaign of the International Transport Workers' Federation and ban Flag of Convenience vessels from our harbours, ports and seas.
As current Maritime Union General Secretary Joe Fleetwood told the media, "Our view is that the unregulated nature of Flag of Convenience global shipping will be shown to be the underlying cause of what has happened. We have vessels on the New Zealand coast that are not up to scratch."
The Rena oil spill which will devastate the Bay of Plenty appears on the surface to be the story of negligence, drunkenness or incompetence. But beneath the surface are the murky details of a global industry corrupted by corporate power and deregulation. If someone is to blame for the Rena spill, it is Jim Bolger and his National Government of 1994 that passed a law to deregulate New Zealand's coastal shipping industry and open it up to Flag of Convenience vessels. And blame Labour, who for nine years ignored the cries of the foreign workers and the protests of the Maritime Union.
Now is the time to go on the offensive, rally around the MUNZ campaign against Flag of Convenience vessels and tell the world that the maritime free market has failed. Capitalism and planet earth are not compatible.