Panama said yesterday it had suspended nearly all the staff in its seafarers' certification agency after a union leader posing as a ship's officer obtained a false qualification. "We've suspended 26 out of the 30 people in the seafarers divison (of the Panama Maritime Authority), so we can have a very thorough investigation by government auditors," Orlando Allard, Panama's representative at shipping's legislative body, the International Maritime Organisation (IMO), told Reuters.

International Transport Workers Federation (ITF) head David Cockroft - in a bid to highlight corruption within the shipping industry - bought last week a certificate with the Panama Maritime Authority stamp qualifying him as a First Officer. The ITF said Cockroft had paid $4,500 for the licence, and had only been asked to supply a photograph, address and a photocopy of the front page of his passport.

"Do you want someone like me, with no practical seafaring experience, steering a ship full of dangerous chemicals or radioactive materials off your coast, or ploughing through the same sea lanes as oil supertankers and crowded passenger ferries?" asked Cockroft. Panama is the world's largest shipping register and is one of 29 flags of convenience (FOC) countries carried by ships owned by foreign businesses.

First Officer is the second most senior position on a ship, and to receive a genuine certificate would require a minimum of five years' cadetship study and sea time. The ITF has campaigned against flags of convenience (FOCs) for many decades. "The ITF believes that too often FOC states allow ship operators to slash operating costs by ignoring safety regulations and exploiting crews - undercutting responsible operators and registers in the process," said a spokesman.

Cockroft said his action had clearly shown up the deficiencies of the FOC system. "The laugh is on Panama, whose controls are so lax that they hand out a vital document to the head of an organisation that for 53 years has challenged the abuses permitted by flags of convenience states such as theirs," he said.

Panama's Allard, who said Panamanian president Mireya Moscoso had asked to be kept personally updated on the crisis, said that forgery of certificates was widespread in the industry. "This is something that happens not just at the Panama Maritime Authority but everywhere," he said. "Usually it is forgery, but I think this is the first time that someone has gone ahead and actually bought one."

He said he thought Cockroft's licence had been created using old certificates from the previous maritime administration, which was replaced at the end of 1999. "The colour is different and the new certificates employ ultra violet and a whole lot of other things to prevent counterfeiting." He said it bore the forged signatures of two people, one of whom had already left the organisation, while the other was currently suspended.

He said that neither had ever been authorised to sign officers certificates, only those of ordinary seamen. Handwriting experts are to be called in, he said, and criminal proceedings could follow. Cockroft told Reuters the contacts to buy the certificate had come from an investigation of fraudulent certification by the Seafarers International Research Centre (SIRC) in Cardiff, Wales. "The opportunity was too good to miss," he said.

The SIRC report uncovered over 12,000 cases of forgery. It said that of the 1,384 individual seafarers and 22 employers that it also polled, 82 percent had detected forged certificates of competency in the last five years.