U.S. Maritime Unions Slam Plans for a USVI Ship Registry

File image courtesy Lorie Shaul

Published Feb 2, 2022 3:44 PM by The Maritime Executive

All of America's leading mariners' unions have joined together to oppose the creation of an open-registry flag in the U.S. Virgin Islands, describing it as an "exercise in labor arbitrage designed to generate registry fees."

If created, the USVI flag would be "the first, and only, international US open ship registry," according to its backers. It would be the fourth U.S.-managed open registry after Liberia, the Marshall Islands and Dominica. 

The recently-announced plan would see the USVI set up its own flag, open to vessels of all nations. It would be developed in partnership with the privately-held company that operates the Dominica Maritime Administration, headquartered in Massachusetts.

The new USVI registry, according to its proponents, would offer higher quality assurance than competitors - including American-managed competitors, like Liberia and Marshall Islands, which have lower historical rates of detention on the Tokyo MOU PSC list. (A spokesperson for the Dominica registry was not available to comment on PSC performance.)

The new USVI registry is part of a broader "Revitalization Plan for U.S. Maritime Trade, Commerce and Strategic Competition," authored by the Center for Ocean Policy and Economics, an organization sharing the Dominica registry's address. The plan's authors suggest that the Jones Act "hinders overseas influence and strategic competitiveness," and that "U.S. laws disincentivize U.S. ownership of vessels and the registering of vessels under the U.S. flag." The solution, they suggest, is the establishment of an additional open-registry flag. Existing open-registry flags are unsuitable, according to the authors, because they have "grown too large for true compliance oversight and lack the desire to provide genuine global law enforcement services."

The plan also calls for a new transshipment hub in the Caribbean, with an emphasis on "secure cargo and efficient, sustainable short sea shipping." 

The registry's backers suggest that the plan will provide employment opportunities for both U.S. and foreign mariners, but America's maritime labor unions are skeptical. In a joint statement, the heads of the AMO, MM&P, SIU, SUP, AFL-CIO, MEBA and Marine Firemen's Union said that they oppose the plan "in the strongest possible terms."

“At its core, this proposal, allowing for the operation of vessels with foreign mariners under a United States open registry, is an affront to the American mariners who have always put themselves in harm’s way whenever called upon by our nation," said the unions in a statement. "The establishment and growth of second registries by other industrialized nations has done little more than decimate their national flag fleets to the point that they are no longer able to provide the requisite military security and logistical support to their flag nations."