Up to a thousand ships flagged to the Cook Islands, Palau, Sierra Leone, and Togo will be targeted for safety, maintenance and seafarer welfare inspections across the Mediterranean Sea in the coming eight weeks by an army of inspectors from the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF), seafarers’ unions and port authorities.
“Substandard shipping in the Mediterranean Sea is driving down seafarers’ wages and conditions, its endangering the lives of crew and risking our environment,” said ITF Inspectorate Coordinator Steve Trowsdale.
“These flags take money from shipowners to register ships that other countries wouldn’t touch. Many are old vessels and are poorly-maintained by their owners. Many of these ships are dangerous and should not be trading,” he said.
The blitz comes off the back of new analysis showing the four Flags of Convenience registries together accounted for more than 100 crew abandoned in the last two years, with millions of dollars wages not paid to crew by the flags’ shipowners that the ITF then had to recover on seafarers’ behalf.
Trowsdale said often when the ITF or its affiliated unions called on the flags to fix problems caused by irresponsible shipowners, such as in cases of abandonment – “that’s when these flags are nowhere to be seen – they take the money and run.”
In just three years, the Cook Islands, Palau, Sierra Leone, and Togo flags were responsible for:
- 33 cases of crew abandonment, affecting more than a hundred seafarers, leaving many without pay, food, water, or a way to get home. 
- Over $5,500,000 USD in unpaid wages cheated from crew, that the ITF then had to recover from the flags’ shipowners on seafarers’ behalf. 
- 5,203 deficiencies or detentions issued by European Port State Control enforcement agencies. 
The ITF inspectors’ efforts will be bolstered in France by the country’s Port State Control agencies, which are organised regionally, Trowsdale said.
They will be also targeting the four flags. A decision which makes sense given both the Paris and Tokyo MOUs have banned or cautioned against ships bearing the flags from being admitted to the ports of most countries in Europe and Asia-Pacific, respectively.
Sierra Leone has claimed recently that it has made improvements. In June 2022 it was shifted from the Paris MOU black list ('very high risk') to the grey list (high risk). However, the West African nation (whose registry is actually run from Cyprus, an island in the Mediterranean) continues to be one of only three flags published on the Tokyo MOU's most recent black list.
Togo, Cook Is, Palau and Sierra Leone flags now ‘Worst in Sea’
“These are now the worst flags operating in the Mediterranean Sea,” said Seddik Berrama, General Secretary of Algeria’s transport union FNTT and ITF Vice President for the Arab World region.
Berrama said it was revealing that the four flags did not appear on the annual quality whitelists issued by the Paris and Tokyo MOUs. 
“The world’s major Port State Control agency groupings have said these flags are not quality. They have said they are high- or very-high risk. That is unacceptable for crew safety just as it is unacceptable for those of us who rely on a clean sea, like our port communities here in Algeria,” said Berrama.
“Our goal is to expose the substandard shipping examples that we see regularly in our ports. If we are able to spread word of the abuses experienced by crew onboard are too often ignored by these flags, then we will send a strong message that substandard shipping is unacceptable.”
Berrama’s union is not alone in having members concerned about the race to the bottom that Togo, Cook Islands, Palau and Sierra Leone were engaged in across the Mediterranean.
Along the Sea’s northern coast, the Seafarers’ Union of Croatia (SUC) has for years expressed growing frustration with the risks that flags like these four had been creating for crew. The ITF’s 2018 Congress endorsed a motion from SUC declaring the Mediterranean a ‘Sea of Convenience’ and tasked the ITF with developing a targeted campaign to clean up the Sea from the scourge of substandard shipping.
Case study: Crew left without food in Haifa onboard Sierra Leone-flagged Kassandra
In 2022, a Sierra Leone-flagged general cargo vessel was detained for 23 days by Israel’s Port State Control in Haifa after it was discovered that 46 structural, navigation, fire safety and crew welfare defects existed with the Kassandra (IMO: 9118276).
The crew were left without working freezers, meaning they had no way to keep food safely chilled in the scorching Mediterranean heat.
“It was in the month of August, when it is very hot and humid,” said ITF Inspector Assaf Hadar of the inspection. “Food supply was short with only a few vegetables on board. It was insufficient to continue their voyage. Things like this are typical for this flag.”
Hadar is one of two dozen ITF inspectors who will be taking part in the rigorous sea-wide checks of all vessels registered to the Cook Islands, Palau, Sierra Leone, and Togo.
“These flags are a big problem for the seafarers who work on the Mediterranean. In my experience, the worst shipowners use these flags because they think they will be able to act bad to crew or cut safety corners. Well, they can’t – not while the ITF is here!” said Hadar.
Notes to Editors:
This article was updated on 20.03.2023 to reflect the latest information available from the Paris MOU. An earlier version of the article contained a table which incorrectly showed Sierra Leone as being on the Paris MOU black list ('very high risk'), which it came off in June 2022. It remains on the Paris MOU grey list (high risk), and continues to be one of only three flags on the Tokyo MOU black list.
1. ILO abandonments database; ITF Inspectorate abandonment data
2. ITF Inspectorate wages recovery data
3. Paris MOU, 2020-22
4. According to the Paris MOU: ‘Each year a new White, Grey and Black lists published in the Paris MoU Annual Report. The “White, Grey and Black (WGB) list” presents the full spectrum, from quality flags to flags with a poor performance that are considered high or very high risk. It is based on the total number of inspections and detentions over a 3-year rolling period for flags with at least 30 inspections in the period.’
About the ITF: The International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) is a democratic, affiliate-led federation of transport workers’ unions recognised as the world’s leading transport authority. We fight passionately to improve working lives; connecting trade unions and workers’ networks from 147 countries to secure rights, equality and justice for their members. We are the voice of the almost-20 million women and men who move the world.