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Sweatshops at Sea: Most of Our Goods Arrive Via Ships Where Seafarers Labor in Dangerous Conditions

With 90 percent of all international cargo being hauled by sea, we rely heavily on the exploitation of seafarers, mostly from low-income countries.
 
 
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Late last year, the Danish shipping giant AP Moller Maersk announced robust third-quarter profits of $2.25 billion. To get the good word out, the company's chief operating officer sent a message to his crews aboard ships around the world, inviting them to join him in celebration by having a piece of traditional Danish lagkage, a kind of cream cake.

Mark Dickinson, head of the Nautilus International seafarers' union, scoffed at the boss's invitation, comparing it to French monarch Marie Antoinette's infamous "let them eat cake" comment. Noted Dickinson, "The profits have been achieved on the back of job losses for highly skilled and experienced personnel, and cuts in operating costs that have left some ships with food budgets that would barely run to covering the costs of cooking cream cakes."

The United States is no longer a major seafaring nation, but we have become increasingly dependent on the volatile global shipping industry. Cargo vessels registered in the United States and Canada account for only 1 percent of global shipping capacity; however, a far larger share of world cargo traffic moves to or from our ports. North America laps up 27 percent of all oil traded internationally, and one of every five filled shipping containers worldwide is headed either away from or (more often) toward the United States. And to help reduce our trade deficit, 44 percent of all grain entering international trade is shipped from a U.S. port.

It has been well documented that our overconsumption is fed by the toil of low-paid workers in factories, farms, mines, and oilfields in other countries. But with 90 percent of all international cargo being hauled by sea, we also rely heavily on the exploitation of seafarers, mostly from low-income countries. And it's not just our personal consumption; the health of our overall economy has become deeply dependent on rapid growth of the world economy, and therefore on the world's seaborne workforce. Just in the past two decades, the tonnage of cargo carried by oceangoing ships worldwide has doubled. And since 2001, shipping volume has been growing at twice the rate of the overall world economy.

That growth has not been steady. In the shipping industry, booms tend to be bigger and busts steeper than in the global economy as a whole. But as viewed from deck level by more than a million seafarers across the globe, the past few decades have been nothing but one long bust.

More than anything, tired

In his 1989 history Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea, Marcus Rediker located the roots of late-20th-century global capitalism in the world of early-18th-century merchant shipping. Life at sea had never been easy; now buffeted by harsh new economic forces, seafarers of the 1700s found it even tougher to make a decent living. The one-two punch of natural and human-made hazards has plagued the industry ever since.

Today, with shipping having become just another gritty industrial activity, any aura of romance and adventure is long gone. Bad weather and rough seas continue to pose serious threats, and those hazards are compounded by market forces far more fearsome than those of three centuries ago.

A 2006 International Transport Workers' Federation report concluded that while some of the exploitation of workers at sea could be blamed on "exceptional rogue elements" in the shipping industry, the bigger problem lay in more "routine exploitations" imposed by the evolving global marketplace.

As in many industries, payrolls have been cut relentlessly. Ships' crews are only half the size of the crews of three decades ago, and they are operating much larger vessels. Today, a modest dry-cargo vessel of around 15,000 tons averages about 21 crew members, but ships 10 times as large average only about 26. Oil tankers operate with crews of similar size.

 
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