The Jones Act is instrumental for protecting the rights of injured maritime workers, but the Jones act also protects our national security and the American shipbuilding industry. Under the Jones act, only U.S.-flagged vessels are permitted to carry cargo between U.S. ports. Vessels belonging to the “Jones Act Fleet” are required to be built in the United States, and must be owned by U.S. citizens and documented (enrolled, licensed or registered) under the laws of the United States. In addition, all officers and 75 percent of the crew must be American. However, the law allows for exemptions in emergencies and in cases where no U.S. ships are available. After Hurricane Katrina, an exemption was made to allow foreign vessels to carry oil and natural gas in the Gulf of Mexico. This led to an increased foreign presence in the waters off the U.S. coast.
Hurricane Katrina was an emergency, but currently there are still more than 30 foreign vessels working in the Gulf of Mexico with foreign crews. These foreign ships continue to be used at the expense of American workers. While American companies are not directly hiring foreign workers, they are hiring the foreign vessels and foreign workers are part of the package. American workers on these ships may not have the full protection of the Jones Act.
While the law requires that all vessels operating on the outer continental shelf must employ only U.S. citizens or lawful permanent residents, foreign labor is cheaper. Companies that hunger for profit can easily find loopholes. For example, a foreign-flagged vessel is exempt from Jones Law requirements if it is more than 50 percent foreign-owned.
In addition, ships involved in pipe-laying, cable-laying, diving support work, and heavy-lift crane construction and installation work have been exempted from the requirements of the Jones Act. Recently, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Agency has taken steps to modify these exceptions. In July, the CBP announced that it planned to revoke or change many of these exceptions and gave thirty days for comments. The proposed revisions to the law also included modifications to that restrict the interpretation of the laws that determine what foreign vessels may transport for the construction, maintenance, repair and inspection of offshore petroleum-related facilities. The oil industry was outraged. They claimed that this would over years of practices on which the oil industry relies and in which it has invested millions of dollars. They also claimed that thirty days was not enough time to review the proposed changes, and that it would take five years for the U.S. shipping industry to be able to support these changes.
Mariner organizations disagree and urge for U.S. jobs and security to be protected. The CPB has withdrawn its proposal pending further study.