Sweatshops on the seas

Arriving at the port in Le Havre is far easier when the French football team is half way through cruising to a 3-0 victory against Honduras. The immigration officials at the port did little more than wave me through as I explained to them that I was a passenger, not crew member, on the steel cargo ship I could see docked in the far distance. They looked confused, but, given the importance of the match I was making them miss, they just shrugged their shoulders and wished me luck.

I had originally planned to walk from the centre of Le Havre, where I’d been waiting at the Seafarers Mission in the basement of a 1960s concrete hotel, but it turned out that the port stretched from the city centre for a full 20km westwards. The taxi driver had to call his boss three times to work out where the right bit of this sprawling port was, and then, when he finally dropped me in front of my boat he had to let me pay half the fifty Euro fare in pounds because I had no idea just how long I’d be in the cab. ‘Enjoy the port’ he said as he lifted my bag from his boot ‘It won’t be here long if the communist trade unions keep going on strike- the companies will find another port.’

I stepped onto the gangway and walked up the steps to the deck of the ship. ‘This’, I thought, ‘Is a truly ridiculous place to spend the next two weeks.’

The ship, which carries about 4000 Twenty Foot Equivalent Units (know as TEUs, these are the standard measurement for container ships), is almost 300 meters long and 32 meters wide. It weighs 42,000 tonnes and was built in 2006. When you stand next to it, you feel little. But this boat is itself small compared to some the ships being built today which are up to four times bigger in terms of carrying capacity. At any given time there are, according to the UN, 29 million TEUs being transported across the world. Shipping is big, it´s growing and it matters to every single one of us.

The Containers on Board

At the top of the gangway I was met by a smiling Filipino man in a blue boiler suit. He led me to the ship´s office where the Captain sat in a pose i´d soon grow familiar with. From the corner of his mouth drooped a cigarette and his eyes darted around the room looking for someone to blame for something. One of the officers led me to my room and reminded me to lock my door at all times. I sat on my bed, looked out of my tiny window into utter darkness and couldn´t stop thinking about home.

Cargo boat travel had first appealed as a way to cut carbon and travel a longway. But, as my two week voyage to Colombia approached, I became less convinced of the environmental credentials of shipping. Instead, I saw it as a chance to learn as much as possible about a world I knew nothing about; seafaring. Samuel Johnson said that ´Being on a ship is like being in jail, but with the chance of being drowned.´and, with that in mind, and the engines pounding my ears and rattling my room I could´t help but thinking, as I lay awake that night, that I’d made a big mistake.

As the 15 days on board went on, however, I was soon convinced that I was the luckiest man (and yes they were all men) on board the vessel. Two weeks, with no obligations other than staving off boredom, is infinitely easier than the lives of the seafarers with whom I spent the voyage.

As the ship made its exit from Europe, and the sea´s colour slowly changed from dark green to a brilliant blue, I spent my time talking with the men who keep the ship running and who play a part in creating the world you see around you. Almost everything you own – from the clothes which keep you warm, to the mug you drink your tea from and the banana you had last week- depend on the shipping industry. Yet, though shipping affects each and every one of us, very few of us know anything about it.

At port the ship is loaded with military precision by towering cranes which reach deep into the vessel’s cargo holds to grab containers or add new ones. Each container can carry up to 30 tonnes of produce. This process, of using containers to transport most of the world’s produce, was invented by an American haulier called Malcolm Maclaren. He realized- earlier than most- that the key to beating his opponents was cutting prices and breaking the back of the unionised stevedores whose job it was to load and unload vessels. These boxes, which are exactly the same dimensions all over the world, make shipping a footloose business. Every major port in the world can handle containers, and if the stevedores in Le Havre demand too much money then the shipping firms can easily relocate to somewhere cheaper. The only real difference between the four ports I saw, in France, Jamaica and Colombia, was the temperature outside. Everything else is as McLean dreamed; exactly the same.

As the days went by on board it became increasingly apparent to me that the whole industry is involved in a race to the bottom on wages. According to the International Labour Organisation there are 1.2million people working in shipping worldwide. Almost 400,000 of these workers are Filipinos. The work is hard and the hours are long. According to Rose George, author of the fantastic book ‘Deep Sea and Foreign Going’ seafaring is ten times more dangerous than land based work.  But, though the 40 degree heat of the engine room and the harsh weather on deck make life extremely difficult, it is the loneliness that cuts deepest of those working on board.One of the Crew Fixes in the Sweltering Engine Room

I often passed the time by asking the men on board how they came to work on the sea and whether they liked it. None of them claimed to enjoy the work and all of them said they did it for the money. Every single one of the men I spoke to, aged 22 to 63, said that they miss their family terribly while on board.

The lowest ranked crew are on board for nine months, with no more than one or two days off work a month when the ship is at port. The Captain, and some of the other officers, spend only three or four months working in their floating prison. One afternoon, as the boat steamed through the middle of the Atlantic and the sun poured through the windows of the navigation room, I spoke to Jared (a mid-ranking Filipino member of the crew) about life away from home. He forced a smile as he told me, between glances at the horizon through his binoculaurs, that last time he went home he went to surprise his kids by picking them up from their grandmother’s. The surprise ended in tears when his youngest child cried out when she found herself being hugged by a dad she simply didn’t recognize as her own. For the men on board, and their children growing up thousands of miles away, the separation is extremely tough.

For some of the seafarers the loneliness on board, and the distance from their families, is exchanged for generous wages and interesting work. For some of the Filipino crew, however, the wages are eye wateringly low. Joshua, who had been a seafarer for three years, told me that he earns the equivalent of three dollars an hour. One morning after breakfast he told me about his life at home as he swept the floor of the mess room and laid the captain’s meal out for him so he could eat alone later on. At just 24 years old Joshua seemed far too young to be telling me how hard it had been to rebuild his home- after it was destroyed by a typhoon -on the wages he earns on board. His family rely on the wages he sends them and jobs at home simply don’t pay enough for them to live the life he wants for them.

Officially people working at sea are only allowed to work 10 hours per day, except in special circumstances. In reality, however, many of them work up to 12 hours a day and, if anything goes wrong in the engine or at port, the days can be even longer. Though the officers tend to work during the daytime many of the crew work both during the day and for a four hour watch duty overnight.  Weekends offer little change, though the captain does give some of the men a few hours off on a Sunday afternoon. When the crew work extra hours they don’t get extra pay. And, with a strict hierarchy on board and the threat of cheaper workers from India or other countries, few of the crew considered a significant pay rise likely at all. All of the Filipinos on board are in a trade union which they consider to be utterly weak in the face of the power of an industry that has little more concern than the bottom line. Cargo boats may well be sweatshops on the sea, but with little public interest and intense competition between firms, no shipping company is likely to be inclined to make any radical changes any time soon.

Whilst at sea, with no visual obstructions, you can see the weather as it approaches you. Dark clouds carrying heavy rain drift slowly towards the vessel, their grey meeting the blue of the water until, all of a sudden, the visibility drops and the decks are drenched. Every afternoon I made my way to the bridge to check the weather forecast, issued first by the Met Office, then, in the middle of the Atlantic, by the French Coastguard and finally, in the Caribbean, by the National Hurricane Centre in Miami. The reports make no sense whatsoever to the untrained eye but, for someone sad enough to listen to the Shipping Forecast on Radio Four they’re rather exciting. Our journey was calm, and the seafarers on board liked to laugh at me for getting excited about 20 foot waves. On one occasion I woke, in the middle of the night, having been thrown across my room onto the floor as the Caribbean waves hit the boat. But, compared to the horrendous trips the crew face during the hurricane season, or as they cross Biscay, I got off pretty lightly.

On some voyages in the Autumn, when the Chief Cook has to tie down everything he’s preparing and the vessels lift stops working because the boat is leaning so much, the crew told me that they wouldn’t sleep for days on end. Everyone gets used to being at sea, but sometimes the waves are so powerful that even the most hardened seafarers spend their days alternating between working their shifts and hurling the contents of their stomach into the toilet or the frothing waters.

Everyone on board looks forward to getting to ports, especially if the ship is staying long enough for the crew to have a few hours break on dry land. There were two priorities on shore leave. Firstly to speak to family back home and secondly to find women.

Women were a hot topic on board the boat. I was asked time and time again if I was going to Colombia for the ´girls´. And, time and time again, seafarers would surprise me by talking about how much they missed their wives in the same breath as briefing me on which ports had the best sex workers. Only one of seven crew members I spoke to about prostitution told me he’d never paid for sex. All of the rest had wives or serious partners who they claimed had no idea how they spent the hours at port when they’re not on Skype. Some of the men had paid ‘girlfriends’ who they’d known for years at ports and who would be there to meet them when they arrived. Others went to the bars near ports and bought their services from someone they’d meet there.

It’s easy, when confronted with confessions of those involved in what society deems to be a vice, to pass judgment. I found the men’s attitude to cheating particularly difficult as I always asked them if they would mind if their wives also paid for sex and they all answered along the lines of ‘women are different, they should be faithful to one person’. But it’s important to remember the context in which these men sought comfort in the arms of women at port. Cargo boats are lonely places. Since many of the crew now have laptops the recreation rooms are often empty by 8pm as the tired crew retreat to their cabins alone to watch films. For months on end the only people these men see are their fellow crew. For those at the bottom of the strict on board hierarchy the majority of interactions with fellow human beings involve being instructed to do something. At times the senior officers are cruel to the crew, and there’s no doubt that they were toning down their behaviour in front of the passenger. The bullying was particularly bad at port when stress levels were running high. ‘ARE YOU FUCKING STUPID?’ an officer would bark at a Filipino crew member for not understanding instructions in such broken English that, frankly, I found hard to comprehend myself.

Counting the Days

The more I spoke to them about the women they met on shore, the more clear it became that they bought much more than just sex. For a few hours they could share space and time with someone who offered them affection. As Luka, one of the Croatian officers who has worked on board ships for years, said: ´the girls on shore know how to make lonely seafarers feel loved.’ In the context of day to day drudgery, bullying on board and months away from home, the so-called ‘vices’ of the seafarers becomes increasingly understandable.

After fifteen days on board the vessel, and after a few days in rolling Caribbean seas, I arrived safely in Cartagena. The port officials boarded the ship, and were promptly and silently handed bundles of cigarettes to help smooth over any difficulties they might face in sorting out all the paperwork. I finally stepped on shore at 5.30 am on a Monday morning. As I walked away from the ship, and for the first time felt the stillness and warmth of the coastal air, I turned back to see one of the Filipino officers waving me goodbye. I couldn’t help but feel guilty for gaining the freedom that I knew he desperately wanted.

These ships, which bring us all the things we want quickly and cheaply, operate in a world hardly any of us know about. It’s a world of both meager wages for those at the bottom and generous salaries for those at the top. Indeed these ships are the perfect metaphor for the type of economy that’s spread across the world. Economies where those at the bottom work long hours for low wages, where we buy from abroad things we could make at home. The ships take guns, chemicals and empty crates to South America and bring back coffee, bananas and other produce owned by Western companies to be sold at a mark up which must make farmer’s eyes water in Latin America.

As I left the port, as quietly as I had arrived in Le Havre, I entered another nation being swept away by World Cup fever. Bright yellow Colombia shirts, made cheaply in China, were being bought on every street corner by people like me who rarely think about how the things we own came to being in our possession. Of course we do need trade, but it shouldn’t be like this. Somehow we need to lift the veil on the shadowy sweatshops operating on our seas. We owe it the people who bring us the things we want and need to take more of an interest in their lives.

  • Names have been changed to protect the crew’s identity.
  • More photographs can be seen here: https://www.flickr.com/photos/matthewbutcher1988/sets/72157645151613217/
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