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Ninety Percent of Everything…A Commentary-Book Review – Part Two

November 20, 2014
The Dutch fluyts could carry more freight with less crew, and so their rates were two-thirds or half those of England (the closest rival). Only in the long-haul trade to the East Indies and the New World (where the large, unarmed fluyt could not be used) could the English carriers compete.

The Dutch fluyts could carry more freight with less crew, and so their rates were two-thirds or half those of England (the closest rival). Only in the long-haul trade to the East Indies and the New World (where the large, unarmed fluyt could not be used) could the English carriers compete.

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Part One

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Ninety Percent of Everything: Inside Shipping, The Invisible Industry That Puts Clothes on Your Back, Gas in Your Car, and Food on Your Plate. by Rose George. Picador: 2013

4.

As with many modern industries, if maritime shipping has become more productive and profitable, this has not translated into a more prosperous work force either on the ships or in the ports. Although life has long been hard and dangerous for seafarers and dock workers, the container revolution has had an especially destabilizing impact on their wages and working conditions. Before launching into the salaries and working conditions of seafarers, by way of example – there are many to choose from – I would like to relate another “industrial modernization” episode. Another situation comparable to that of seafarers comes to mind in reading George’s narrative: that of the Tunisian phosphate industry, which like the global merchant marine, went “hi-tech.” This mining sector was modernized over the course of the 1980s and 1990s. Productivity and profits in the industry rose, but a 25,000 man work force of miners was cut to less than 8,000 with no alternative sources of employment for those laid off; no Tunisian state investment of the profits gained thereby targeted the Gafsa mining region. It should be no surprise that the rebellion which toppled the Ben Ali government in January, 2011 started several years prior in the Gafsa region.

This is the way of modernization: greater productivity, more profits in a system that is constantly throwing people out of work with either less remunerative possibilities or none at all. Labor, the work force, again and again, gets the raw end of the deal. Such has been the case with the global merchant marine which frankly is little more than an extreme example of the global trends. On the one hand it has led to an explosion and re-organization of world trade that continues until present. Standardizing container shipments to move easily and interchangeably from ships to trains to trucks was a brilliant coup, as was the computerization of the industry, including satellite tracking. But if containers are one of the driving forces behind the  maritime success equation, revolutionizing labor relations, the radical reorganization of the work force, is the other.  There is a simple but stubbornly pursued goal here: extract more labor out of a smaller work force working for lower pay: greater productivity, fewer seafarers, lower salaries. Nowhere in commercial shipping are these changes more apparent than in container shipping where merchant marine crews and dock workers have been cut to a bare minimum and the loads they manage have grown to herculean proportions….a 20 man crew on a ship with 6200 20 ‘by 8’by 8’ containers.

Actually while the technology of container ships is recent, new, the tendency to create greater efficiencies in maritime trade by creating sea-worthy vessels that can carry heavier loads with smaller, more cheaply paid crews goes back a long ways. In the seventeenth century, when the Dutch ruled the world’s oceans and seas, dominating the carrying trade as it was called, they developed  super-efficient “fluyts” – referred to in one website appropriately enough as “the container ship of the Golden Age” that could carry more freight greater distances with smaller crews than their competitors of the day. Was the fluyt the 17th century version of the container ship or the container ship simply a 20th and 21st century fluyt? The principle is the same. Used mostly for the Dutch Baltic Trade, “the mother trade” as it was called, fluyts carried  grain, wood, stockfish, copper, tar, hides, hemp, flax and saltpetre, an important component of gunpowder between Baltic ports of Tallinn, Turku, Stockholm to Amsterdam and Rotterdam. Wages were low, working conditions (food, water) often sub-par even for those days and in the long distance trade to what is today Indonesia, the death rate of Dutch seaman could be as high as 50%, but that did not stop a never-ending flow of labor from swarming Dutch ports in search of work.

Was the fluyt the 17th century version of the container ship or the container ship simply a 20th and 21st century fluyt? The principle was the same.

Lascars - Indian seafarers on a British steamer in the late 19th century;

Lascars – Indian seafarers on a British steamer in the late 19th century;

5.

Rose George does not go into depth concerning seafarer wages and working conditions but a clear sense of its challenges comes through throughout the pages of the book. Still, major shifts in the global merchant marine are discussed. Crews have always been international drawing from the entire globe but the percentage of Europeans and North Americans among them has dwindled over the past half century. The officers might remain European but today’s container crews hail from four countries: Indonesia, Bangladesh, China, Philippines. Low wages and English proficiency seems to be key to the ethnic make up of crews. A large number of these seafarers come from the last-named country, the Philippines. They make up a third of all crews worldwide and there are some 250,000 of them at sea. A Filipino seafarer succinctly explained why to George: we are cheap and speak good English.”

Before Filipinos dominated the ranks of seafarers, it was Malays, before the Malays Indian seamen known in the trade as lascars, the histories of each group, rich, painful and rarely told.   From the 16th through the early 20th centuries, the lascars were employed especially in British shipping to help in the tedious journey from Great Britain to India and back. As demands for better working conditions and higher wages intensified, the lascars were replaced by the Malays, very active seamen during World War II, and then in the post war period more and more by the Filipinos who in turn, one can speculate will some day themselves be replaced by yet cheaper English-speaking crews.

From the 16th through the early 20th centuries, the lascars were employed especially in British shipping to help in the tedious journey from Great Britain to India and back. As demands for better working conditions and higher wages intensified, the lascars were replaced by the Malays, very active seamen during World War II, and then in the post war period more and more by the Filipinos who in turn, one can speculate will some day themselves be replaced by yet cheaper English-speaking crews.

Gender-wise, seafarers have been and remain an overwhelmingly male profession. Kendal, with its 6200 containers, has a crew of all of twenty seafarers and one cook, the latter, “Pinky”, a Filipino, being the only female among them. Historically women were rarities in global shipping and that remains “the tradition” today. However the ethnic make up of merchant sailors includes people from many places; George relates that nearly two-thirds of ships have more than one nationality, but nearly 40% have several. This is in part a result of the nature of the enterprise, sailors coming and going at different ports so that ships are often compensating for lost numbers at different ports of call. Navies it appears, like to steal crew from merchant ships. That said,  today, recruitment of merchant seamen are chosen by planners in shipping offices worldwide. Manila, Mombai, Singapore are often cited. More and more there are conscious efforts to have more multi-national crews. George explains that the seafarers themselves prefer multi-ethnic crews and that such crews rather than increasing, tend to reduce tensions. Perhaps. But I cannot help thinking of the purposeful ethnic mixing in Colorado mines in the early 20th century to dampen labor militancy where companies like the infamous Colorado Fuel and Iron Company (CFI – of Ludlow infamy) would purposely mix miners of different ethnic backgrounds speaking Italian, Greek, Croatian, Spanish, what have you, and often unable to communicate their common grievances. It is hard to imagine that a century later in maritime shipping that the same logic is not at least, in part, at work.

The Filipino entry into seafaring is relatively recent, beginning in 1974, with the encouragement of one of the 20th century’s great kleptomaniacs and key U.S. allies, Ferdinand Marcos. It was a way for the island nation to deal with its increasingly aggravated unemployment crisis. Filipino women were sent in large numbers to oil-producing Middle East countries as nannies, nurses sent to Europe and North America and seafarers to the burgeoning container fleets – all cheap labor in the global labor market. Today there are some ninety merchant marine academies in the Philippines producing an astonishing 40,000 seafarers annually. As George notes, in 2011, they sent home some $4.3 billion in remittances. On the Kendal, rather typically, the Filipino crew works under British law (it is a British flagged ship)  but at Filipino rates which are around $1000 a month, more than a senior Filipino government official makes, but less than a third or a quarter of what their European shipmates would take home.

The United States and Great Britain used to have some of the world’s largest merchant marine fleets. This is no longer the case. Today less than 1% of the maritime trade reaching American ports are carried on U.S. registered ships. Today there are fewer than 100 ocean-going U.S. registered ships among the 100,000 that ply the world’s major waterways. In 1961, Great Britain hosted some 142,500 seafarers, today the number has shrunk to 24,000, still sizable but much, much smaller than in the past.

Keep in mind that she was embedded on The Kendal, a 6200 container ship that ABM-Maersk chose, not one of her own choice. In a field where the conditions of labor are, at best, “opaque” – as is the whole operation of container ships – it is not too outlandish to suggest the company put her on what they considered to be a model ship with one of their best and most humane captains and a crew not about to mutiny. Still living and working on a container ship is hard at best and filled with all kinds of possible dangers. Despite international agreements, it is in practice a highly unregulated field “uniquely mobile, and difficult to govern, police or rule.” According to the international union that represents the now 600,000 seafarer members, the International Transport Workers Federation, the maritime and fishing industries together “continue to allow astonishing abuses of human rights of those working in the sector…Seafarers and fishers are routinely made to work in conditions that would not be accepted by a civilized society.” (p.11) Once out beyond the 12 mile limit that defines national sovereignty, as in days of yore, most of them are completely at the mercy of the ships’ captains with no connection nor communication with their home countries or company main offices. More than 2/3 of ships crews are denied cell phone or internet access.

Even in the best of situations, a seafarer work week is punishing; up until two years ago, 2012, international standards allowed seafarers to work a 98 hour/seven-day a week work week….which averages out to fourteen hours a day. It turns out they were consistently working more than that as reflected in accident reports. A more recent “Labor Maritime Convention” known as the Seafarers’ Bill of Rights reduced that to seventy-two hours, which is still more than the maximum recommended in the EU Working Time Directive.

George mentions a 2006 report which indicates the consequences of such punishing work schedules: one of four seafarers falls asleep while on watch:

“Their level of fatigue is as dangerous as drinking seven times the legal limit of alcohol. Sixty percent of shipping accidents are due to human error. When the Exxon Valdez  struck Alaska’s Bligh Reef in 1989, spilling eleven million gallons of crude oil, an investigation found that the watch officer had been mostly awake for eighteen hours before his shift.”

How much is overwork a factor in the 2000 or so deaths of seamen who die every year or the fact that two merchant ships are lost every week? Add to this the lack of any serious regulatory investigatory or enforcement mechanism to keep ship owners accountable and a picture of just how unstable and dangerous maritime shipping can be, emerges. By way of example, using interviews with family members of victims, George details the sinking of one at Christmas time in 2009, the Danny F II, a livestock carrier arriving from Uruguay to the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli carrying 10,224 sheep, 17932 cows and 83 men. It is a typical tale in many ways along with . Prior to carrying livestock, and with another name and another owner, the Don Carlos, she carried cars. In the early 1990s she was sold twice, first to a Singapore company and then to Rachid Fare Enterprises, a livestock transporter. During this period the Danny F II was registered and flew the flags of Sweden, Singapore, Liberia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines. By the time of her sinking she was now owned by the Egyptian based Falcon Point International, the world’s largest marine registry and was carrying a crew that included a British captain and electro-technical engineer, an Australian stock man and a crew made up largely of Uruguayans, Pakistanis, Filipinos, Lebanese.

Turns out that transporting livestock by ship has its own lethal logic even in the best of times. George notes that according to the Australian Society for the Protection of Animals, some 40,000 cattle and sheep die being transported from Australia every year. Some of the specific incidents cited are worth mentioned by way of example

  • During the 2006 voyage of Al Messilah some 1863 sheep and cattle died because of heat and failure to eat
  • 6000 sheep were stranded at sea for three months in 2003 having been rejected by their Saudi importer; when another buyer could not be found the Australian government offered them for free to Eritrea
  • In 2002, 6119 sheep died in high temperature on four ships. One of these ships, the Al Shuwaikh, was then permitted to load more local sheep and 2,304 of these died.

In the case of the Danny F II, it sank as a result of lack of balance of the ship’s load as too much material and livestock where on one side of the ship. When the ship was purposely tipped to expel animal waste, it could not regain its balance, tipped over and sank. George describes the sinking in detail. Half the crew, including the captain drowned. Those rescued were essentially left to make do on their own and were treated in an extraordinarily shabby manner by Falcon Point International; only late in the game did the company provide a pair of pants, socks and shoes to the survivors, but that was all. As the ship sank in international waters, and not within Lebanese territorial limits, the Lebanese government did not open an investigation. Flying a Panamanian flag, Lebanon had no formal authority over the fate of the Danny F II; despite inquiries from families of survivors, the Panamanian government, “one of the worst offenders at lax publication and investigation” of maritime accidents under its legal responsibility, failed to release a report on the accident or to respond to inquiries.

To be continued…

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Links:

Pinoy rescued off sunken cargo ship being brought to Vietnam.  The ill-fated ship was carrying 46,400 tons of iron ores from Malaysia to China during the accident.

Shipwrecks 2014

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Alan Gilbert permalink
    November 20, 2014 11:32 pm

    Dear Rob, my apologies. I am leaving for DharamsLa, monday, my wonderful old previa van’s transmission died and we just bought a nissan leaf. I am trying to learn about charging stations. Anyway, i can’t take you out for your birthdat til january – how about tiesday of the second week of classes at 12 or 1 at jerusalem?

    All the best, Alan

    Sent from my iPhone

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