Mistreatment of Maritime Workers at the Center of Discussion on Changing the Flag of Convenience System

Washington and other Pacific Ocean seamen who have been underpaid or unpaid by their employer were discussed in the Global Unions' statement to the G8 Lough Erne Summit. The union covered the various abuses that occur to maritime workers due to the Flag of Convenience System, which allows a vessel owner to fly a different flag from that of his or her own country. This provides owners the opportunity to avoid taxes, labor laws, and safety standards put in place to enable crew members to do their work in a safe environment while duly compensated.

A vessel owner may attempt to side-step the Seamen's Wage Act by registering their ship in a different country other than the United States of America. The Wage Act delineates the timing and amount of pay to which seamen are entitled once they begin work or sign an agreement with an employer. The Wage Act also outlines what items need to be included in an employment agreement between the owner and seaman. It specifically points out that the law does not apply to a foreign vessel, unless the foreign vessel is harbored in the United States.

Pursuing an unpaid or underpaid wage based on an unfair employment agreement can quickly become complicated. In Ballen v. Holland America Line, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals looked at an employment agreement between a Filipino crew member and the cruise line, Holland America. Holland America's fleet flies the flags of nations other than the United States. The maritime worker in this case signed an employment agreement, partially negotiated through a Filipino seamen's union, which required him to reimburse the cruise line for travel expenses. When he could not pay the required reimbursement, he was fired.

The seaman filed suit in Washington, claiming the employment agreement was invalid under the Wage Act, and that this matter could not be resolved through the arbitration mandated in his contract. Both the federal district and circuit courts disagreed, ruling that the arbitration clause in the employment agreement was valid under the United Nations Convention on the Recognition and Enforcement of Foreign Arbitral Awards. The Courts looked to established federal policy preference for matters to be resolved through arbitration and the Wage Act itself. As part of their discussion, the Court of Appeals noted that the Wage Act does not apply to foreign vessels.

Until substantial changes are made to the trustworthiness and transparency of the Flags of Convenience system, maritime workers will remain vulnerable to ship owners' ability to avoid accountability and liability. The experienced Washington Maritime Wage Claim Attorneys, John Merriam and Gordon Webb, have helped protect the rights of seamen for over 50 years. If you believe you have not been duly compensated and are not sure if your claim falls under the Seamen's Wage Act, call one of our attorneys today for a free, confidential consultation at either the Seattle office at 206-729-5252 or the Bellevue office a 425-454-3800.

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