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


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.

Capt. Li Chi Wai, who heads the Hong Kong Seamen's Union, explained the shipping companies' position to me this way: "With all of their expenses -- for supplies, fuel, maintenance, etc. -- rising, the only thing shipowners have the ability to cut back on is salary. That means keeping crews small and pay as low as possible."

With the stretching of smaller crews to cover all tasks on the typical cargo ship, the average work week has swelled to almost 70 hours. Half of all seafarers responding to one survey reported working more than 85 hours per week. Some international standards actually permit up to 98 hours of duty per week, a truly inhuman schedule.

Even those standards tend to melt away under the heat of global competition. In a study of port-state inspections in the UK, Russia, and India, the Cardiff, Wales-based Seafarers' International Research Center concluded that "current regulations on hours of work and rest were found to be, to all practical purposes, unenforceable."

In those short rest periods that are permitted, noise and ship motion can make sleep difficult. Sleep loss is compounded by disruption of biological rhythms, with many workers alternating between night and day shifts. Captains, first mates, and other watchkeepers often work around the clock, in a six-hours-on, six-hours-off cycle -- a schedule that is far from conducive to maximum alertness in often hazardous conditions.

Time pressures grow more intense year by year. In his 30 years of work with the Hong Kong Mission to Seafarers, Reverend Peter Ellis has noticed a thorough, top-down transformation of the industry. "The shipping companies are no longer being run by people with experience at sea," he told me. "They are logistics types, they know business but not the sea." That, he believes, has led to a lack of appreciation for the typical seafarer's situation.

Greatly expanded shipping traffic and the quest for reduced costs and faster delivery provide strong incentives for cutting turnaround time in port. Capt. Li says that in Hong Kong, "Container ships now finish unloading within only a few hours, 10 to 15 maximum. They used to be in port a full day or more. This makes for a very hard life for seafarers. It's difficult for them to get time even to phone home."

The International Labor Organization (ILO) notes that "fast turnaround times have limited the possibilities for seafarers to have any form of social contact beyond the shipboard community." A report by the North of England Protection and Indemnity Association demonstrates that, partly as a result, seafarers appear to be suffering a growing incidence of anxiety attacks, aggressive behavior toward fellow crewmembers, and even suicide.

When they are, in theory, allowed some time in port, today's crews continue to be hampered by the global port-security clampdown that followed the attacks of September 11, 2001. In one positive development, the extreme restrictions faced by crewmembers wanting to go ashore for a break, especially in U.S. ports, may be eased somewhat under a new port-security law that was signed by President Obama in October.

But even when, following the longtime custom of sailors everywhere, they are permitted go ashore, have a few beers, and relax, many of today's seafarers may not have the energy for it. That long-prized benefit of the maritime life -- "seeing the world" -- is not a high priority for the shipboard workers that Rev. Ellis meets daily. "Their goal is just to fulfill the contract," he says. "More than anything, they all seem so very tired."

And, of course, technology is transforming the crews' social world. Soon, most will have constant access to the Internet at sea. But, says Ellis, "that may not be all positive. With their minds more and more on problems back home, will they be even more isolated from fellow seafarers?"

Death at sea

Accidental injury and fatality rates in merchant shipping are among the highest in any industry. In one worldwide sample of workers at sea, 9 percent reported having been injured just within the previous year. Threats posed by life on the open ocean are compounded by other health threats common in heavy industry: machinery accidents, constant loud noise and strong vibration, exposure to toxic chemicals and asbestos, and buildup of poisonous gases or depletion of oxygen in confined spaces. Seafarers have significantly elevated risks of musculoskeletal disease, cancer, respiratory infections, cardiovascular disease, and hearing loss.

Death rates in European merchant fleets have declined steeply over the past 20 years, partly because of improved safety practices and partly because a large share of lower-value cargo shipping has been handed off to less safety-conscious nations. Yet the most recent estimates from ships flagged in the United Kingdom and Denmark show that merchant seafarers remain about twelve times as likely to die from work-related accidents as are workers in shore-based industries.

There are very few hard numbers on fatality rates in merchant fleets registered in nations of the global South. Some reports have concluded that overall, the world fleet has a fatal accident rate two and a half to three times that of the British-flagged fleet. The annual number of accidental deaths among the world's one million or so seafarers in recent years has been estimated at around 3,300. That figure does not include deaths due to suicides, homicides or diseases.

In the 1700s, according to Rediker, piracy of ships by their own crews was the ultimate collective-bargaining weapon in struggles with captains and owners. But for seafarers today, the recent plague of piracy off the east coast of Africa has had no upside. Last year, piracy off the coast of Somalia costs the world economy $12 billion. More importantly, crews unlucky enough to be sent into those seas are asked to carry yet another burden of grave danger.

Piracy today accounts for a tiny percentage of all seafarer deaths; however, the risk is rising. According to a 2010 Associated Press report, "Better trained and protected crews are increasingly able to repel attacks, but pirates eager for multimillion-dollar ransoms are now resorting to violence much more often to capture ships." At the end of 2010, 470 seafarers were being held hostage by Somali pirates.

A rising tide doesn't lift all wages

Since the 1970s, ownership of vessels and hiring of labor have shifted dramatically from Western Europe and North America to low-wage countries, and ship registration has continued its shift toward so-called flags of convenience.

Today, out of every five people employed in international sea trade, one is Filipino. Seafarers pump more than $2 billion worth of foreign earnings into the economy of the Philippines, greatly easing its trade deficit. But recently, concerns have arisen that the nation's seafarers are becoming less competitive on the labor market because, according to journalist Alecks Pabico, Chinese and Eastern European mariners "are relatively at par with Filipinos in terms of skills, but accept lower wages."

Chinese seafarers like Gang Bo -- a cadet from Shanxi province whom I met at Hong Kong's Mariners' Club as he returned from a six-month voyage -- represent the fastest growing segment of the world's maritime work force. Gang Bo works on Taiwanese-owned, Hong Kong-registered container vessels, shuttling back and forth to the port of Long Beach, California. Life aboard ship, he says, is boring and often frustrating, because it keeps him cut off from the world for weeks at a time with only the same 20 guys for company.

But working on a reasonably well-run container ship, he seems to have it better than either the average worker on a cut-rate bulk carrier or any of the other seafarers I've spoken with. He and his shipmates get as many as five days in port in Long Beach and are permitted ashore. He says, "We shop for our own provisions. The fruit in California is very good." Coming from China, he expresses a view of the Los Angeles-Long Beach area one doesn't hear very often: "It's such a beautiful place, because the air is so clean!"

Gang Bo doesn't say how much he's paid. For a basic-level seafarer (known as an AB), ILO recommends an international monthly minimum wage of $545; overtime and leave pay should bring total income to at least $957 per month when the nonbinding ILO standards are followed. But actual wages vary dramatically among nationalities. Bangladeshi ABs have been found to earn only one-fortieth as much as Japanese seafarers of similar rank.

Wages at sea are usually better than what the same workers might earn in sweatshops in their home countries; however, most seafarers have virtually no job security. They work on contracts of usually no more than 10 months and spend several months each year unpaid as they seek a new ship and contract. At any one time, fewer than half of the seafarers registered in the Philippines are actually at sea and earning pay.

The 2006 Maritime Labor Convention, which is expected to be ratified by a sufficient number of nations to go into force by late 2011 or early 2012, will set a new floor under wages, put firmer but still-high ceilings on working hours, and make other improvements in the lot of seafarers. But one maritime labor leader told me it won't be enough: "The Convention will help by setting a firm minimum wage. But it won't touch wages in general."

And in the seafarer's world, paychecks don't tell the whole story. In some countries, the "manning agencies" that normally handle hiring for the shipping companies are notorious for their exploitative practices. Bottom-feeding manning agents reportedly charge job-seekers a fee for signing them up (often having them forfeit the paychecks from their first couple of months' work), demand fees to enroll prospects in training courses, require bond money, or simply take payments from their targets without supplying them a job at all.

Seafarers who complain about their wages or working conditions, or those who seek membership or help from a union, risk being blacklisted. There is evidence that manning agencies and shipping companies circulate lists of such workers, ensuring they cannot secure jobs anywhere in the industry.

Broke and stranded

As world demand for goods was collapsing in the recession year of 2009, companies littered ports around the world with their financially crippled ships, abandoning both the vessels and their unpaid crews, with thousands of miles often separating the seafarers from their homes. In such cases, crews have no choice but to remain on board ship in a foreign port, often with little or no money to replenish food supplies. Even if they could afford to go home, most would not; if crew members leave the ship, they are unlikely ever to recover their back wages. At one point last year, more than 200 seafarers were known to be living, unpaid, aboard abandoned ships (large pdf).

To see how crews manage when faced with such predicaments, I joined Rev. Ellis on one of his regular visits to a small container ship anchored far out in Hong Kong Harbor. In September, the crew of the 2000-ton Marie T., owned in the Philippines and flagged in Panama, had had the ship "arrested" for nonpayment of back wages. Their wage bill had reached $100,000, and the crew stood in a long line with other creditors. The total debt was approaching the ship's entire $1.2 million value.

Four of the eight crew members had been repatriated, putting their trust in promises that they would eventually be paid. Meanwhile, the Danish captain, the Swedish chief engineer, and two Filipino ABs had been living aboard the idled ship for six weeks (in what turned out to be an active typhoon season) and faced several more sweltering months bobbing in the harbor before the owner could be forced to sell the ship at auction and the crew could go home -- where they would be forced to wait three additional months until their paychecks could be released.

The chief engineer was the crew's designated spokesman. A tall, 60ish, soft-spoken fellow who didn't give his name, he'd worked in ships' engine rooms for much of his life. But in the spring of 2010 he had been working a shore job in Manila for the ship's owner when he finally become fed up with his boss's chronic failure to deliver a paycheck. When he learned that Marie T's chief engineer at the time had left the ship, he saw an opportunity: "It became clear to me that the only way to force the owner to pay me what he owed was to get on board this ship."

He joined Marie T at her next port; three months later, after discharging the vessel's final load at Hong Kong's huge container port, he and the other crew members filed an action against the owner in the local courts.

Marie T was the last of 10 ships arrested in Hong Kong in 2010, over issues ranging from unpaid loans to failure to pay wages; arrested ships have sat idle in the harbor for as long as 14 months at a stretch. The Hong Kong courts are among the strictest in enforcing actions against delinquent ship owners. Standing there on the bridge in a grimy, sweat-soaked undershirt -- the air-conditioners both on the bridge and in his cabin having broken down -- the engineer told me, "We're actually lucky. We unloaded the last of our cargo here in Hong Kong. If we'd had to go on to the Philippines, we'd have no chance to recover the pay we're owed."

As in all such situations, it was the ship that was arrested but the crew that was, in effect, imprisoned. The court was ensuring the crew received sufficient provisions, charged to the owner's swelling debt, and the engineer said he was loaning some additional money to crew members from a small pension he has. But, he observed, "It's the families at home that are really being hurt. They depend on these guys to send money home to pay rent, utility bills, and so forth. These guys are losing respect back home."


No one takes up a job at sea expecting it to be a cakewalk. But in the past, the daily restrictions and dangers of life at sea were at least balanced to some degree by the opportunity for travel, excitement and adventure. Today, pay remains low and work stresses seem to multiply year by year, while at the same time, as one Filipino seafarer told me, working at sea has become "about as adventurous as driving a taxi."

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