Cunard's three cruise ships, Queen Mary 2, Queen Victoria and Queen Elizabeth, will no longer fly the Union Jack.
After 171 years of flying the Union Jack with Southampton painted on the stern, Cunard's cruise ships will now be registered in Bermuda and will bear the name Hamilton - Bermuda's capital.
The question arises why Cunard, which has flown the British flag on its ships since 1840, would suddenly decide to flay a flag of convenience today?
Cunard claims that the reason is simple. It wants to offer "weddings at sea" where the captain can perform marriages. Other cruise lines, like Princess Cruises which is flagged in Bermuda, earn income by performing marriages of passengers during cruises. However, weddings at sea are not allowed under British law.
But there is more to this story. Britain's new "Equality Act 2010" requires that ship employees from EU countries who are working on British flagged vessel such as the Cunard cruise ships must be paid wages equal to those of the British crewmembers. By dropping the British flag, Cunard is dropping all the British wage and labor laws.
Earlier this year, the New York Times published an excellent article regarding the shipping industry's use of "flags of convenience." Entitled "Flying the Flag, Fleeing the State," the article explains how unscrupulous ship owners evade responsibility for environmental damage, exploitative labor and unsafe work conditions, and criminal behavior.
The article reveals that ships used to fly the flags of their nation which protected the seafarers and passengers and punished the shipping companies when they broke the law. But this changed when American flagged ships began flying the flags of foreign countries in order in order to avoid U.S. laws and government oversight. The "foreign registries" were in countries with no government oversight and no real connection to the vessel or its owners in the first place, like Panama, Liberia, North Korea and even landlocked Mongolia. The registries often fail to monitor the safety and working conditions on ships or investigate accidents.
What are the real consequences of a cruise ship flying a flag of convenience?
For passengers or crewmembers who are victimized by a shipboard crime, Bermuda will have jurisdiction to investigate and prosecute crimes. You can read about the indifference and lackluster efforts of the Bermuda authorities in a recent article here.
For crewmembers, they can be easily exploited. The New York Times article points out that there is a "human cost" which includes long hours, punishing work, and little rest; some international regulations permit 98-hour work weeks. Cruise line employees are a good example. Stateroom attendants and cleaners work a minimum of 12 hours a day and often are pushed to 14 to 16 hours when required to handle luggage on embarkation days, ending up with a 90 plus hour work week and no days off. Cruise ship cleaners earn a maximum of $545 a month working a minimum of 360 hours a month. Repetitive injuries to these crew members frequently occur, and just as frequently the cruise lines abandon them in countries like Nicaragua or India with inadequate medical care.
Because most ship employees are non U.S. citizens, the U.S. public has been indifferent to their plight. But the problem inherent in flags of convenience came home to the U.S. last year when the offshore Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded and 11 American oil and gas workers perished.
The U.S. Coast Guard 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 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.
Why did the rig owners decide to go all of the way to an island in the Pacific to register its oil rig, you may ask? For the same reason cruise lines like Carnival and Royal Caribbean went to South America and Africa to register their cruise ships in Panama and Liberia - to avoid U.S. laws and oversight.
Now Cunard, owned by Carnival whose cruise ships fly the flags of Panama, has finally followed suit by registering its three cruise ships in a rocky island in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.
Yes, Cunard now can marry passengers at sea. But many crewmembers will lose employment rights and victims of shipboard crime on the Cunard fleet will quickly find themselves in a no-man's land.
October 20, 2011 Update: The Cunard cruise ships will now fly the Red Ensign. The Red Ensign Group is comprised of the United Kingdom, Crown Dependencies (Isle of Man, Guernsey and Jersey) and UK Overseas Territories (Anguilla, Bermuda, British Virgin Islands, Cayman Islands, Falkland Islands, Gibraltar, Montserrat, St Helena and the Turks & Caicos Islands) which operate shipping registers.
This will permit the ships to be referred to as "British ships" but in reality be subject to the employment laws of Bermuda.
October 21, 2011 Update: Cunard fans are leaving brutal comments at the Cunard facebook page about use of a flag of convenience (my comment was quickly deleted). You can read the comments here.