Parliament's Temporary Committee on Safety at Sea was told that the EU's response to recent maritime disasters had missed the key point - the human factor. Eduardo Chagas, of the Maritime Transport Section of the European Transport Workers' Federation (ETF), explained that the prime causes of tanker casualties were not structural but human. Grounding and collisions accounted for almost 50% of incidents, whereas only around 11% were related to hull failure. According to Chagas, human conditions in the maritime sector should be taken more seriously, especially in EU legislation.
Flags of convenience and false certificates for merchant navy officers were the issues that most needed to be tackled. The ETF representative told astonished MEPs that one of his colleagues had managed to "buy" an official captain's certificate in Panama by just sending a fax with some personal data and paying a certain amount of money.
Mr Chagas also voiced concern about the tendency to criminalize seafarers. More than one year after the Prestige sank, Captain Mangouras was still under house arrest in Spain. "We believe this case provides another example of masters and officers becoming a convenient scapegoat for an accident in the absence of other accessible parties and has highlighted once again the need for internationally-agreed measures to protect seafarers from unjust criminalisation", said Mr Chagas.
Moreover, for thousands of today's international seafarers life at sea was a modern form of slavery and their workplace was a slave ship.
The debate generated by the Prestige was, said the ETF representative, in grave danger of missing the key point: that it pays to run a substandard ship. There were lots of "free riders" running vessels all over the world. Therefore, the role of flag states should come under the spotlight, as many flag states did not even enforce minimum international standards.
Mr Chagas urged MEPs to press the Commission to take account of human element issues when drafting the "Erika III package" announced for this year.
Professor P.K. Mukherjee of the Malmö World Maritime University also pointed out that the human factor in maritime safety and environmental protection was vital. At the centre of global concern over maritime safety and environmental protection was the human element in all its facets. According to Prof. Mukherjee, the status of the seafaring profession at all levels and in all parts of the world including Europe required serious review. He added that there was a lack of job security even for masters of ships. In conclusion, he said that no stone should be left unturned in improving the lot of seafarers everywhere in the world and that the EU was well positioned to lead the way in this important task.
A range of other experts also appeared before the committee. Speaking for the French shipowners' organization Armateurs de France, Berlet said French shipowners had on a voluntary basis adopted a Blue Charter aimed at improving maritime safety. The same message came from Jan Koperniecki, chairman of the Oil Companies International Maritime Forum OCIMF. He claimed his organization would not have used a 25-year old tanker like the Prestige but he also insisted that the key to improved maritime safety was active enforcement of existing law.
Council President-in-Office Dermot Ahern and Captain Liam Kirwan of the Irish Coastguard explained how the Irish authorities dealt with maritime disasters, while Robin Middleton, UK Secretary of State Representative, described the British approach. On behalf of the Baltic Marine Environment Protection Commission, Anne Christiane Brusendorff informed MEPs about the special problems of maritime safety in the Baltic Sea, where oil tankers, in particular from the Russian Federation, posed a serious risk to the environment.
Lastly, two Spanish professors, Fernando Gonzalez Laxe of the University of La Coruna and Juan Zamora Terres of the Technical University of Catalonia, gave their view on the disaster with the Prestige off the Galician coast. Mr Gonzalez Laxe told MEPs that 50% of ships were sailing under a flag of convenience, 70% of oil tankers still were single-hull tankers and about 40% of vessels were more than 20 years old. It was of great importance that practice of buying a ship
and using it for a short period should be stopped. Mr Zamora Terres called on the European Union and the Member States to make their maritime administration more professional, so that the system of flags of convenience could finally be stopped.