How the Shipping Industry is the Secret Force Driving the World Economy

What percent of goods are shipped via the sea? It’s much higher than you think

Ninety percent of all goods travel via the shipping industry. (Evan Leeson)

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It has been researched that for shipping, the average amount of time that they have on land is two hours, and so many of them just stay in the port. Marius, who had never been to France even though he’d been at sea for 10 years or so, he’s probably set foot in a French port but he’s never been farther than a seafarers’ mission of wherever he can get free Wi-Fi. And that’s true for a lot of these guys, because they don’t want to risk not getting back to work on time and they don’t want to spend a hundred dollars each way to go into town for an hour and come back. A lot of them end up essentially living mostly on their ship for nine or 10 months. The Filipino crew on my ship, some of them had six-month contracts and they do get ashore, but not for long. They go, use Skype, call their families and then get back on the ship.

Another theme that runs throughout the book – in the same vein as old vs. new – is this sense of the tension created by increasing globalization. You talk a lot about the multiple layers of nationalities involved in any shipping endeavor – the country that owns the ship, the country that owns the company, the flags and the sailors. What kind of dynamic does this create?

Well, you’ve got 70 percent of ships now which fly a flag that has nothing to do with the nationality or residency of their owner. That came about quite simply because, around Prohibition and more so during the Second World War, American ship-owners discovered that they could rent the flag of Panama or Liberia. They could pay a fee and fly the flag of Liberia or Panama, and then they wouldn’t be subject to U.S. labor laws, because initially they were trying to void Prohibition restrictions. Then, of course, their costs reduced dramatically. The operating costs—not the operating costs, really, but wage bills and such between a U.S.-flagged ship today and a ship that’s flagged-out is $1 to $2 million a year. They have these ships that are technically Panamanian, or Liberian, and subject to the laws of Panama or Liberia.

It’s quite strange to me that many people will go on a holiday on a cruise ship without checking what flag the ship is. It’s like going to a country and not noticing what country you’re in. If you go to see on a Bahamian ship, a ship that’s flying the flag of the Bahamas, if anything happens on that ship there are some international laws that the ship is subject to, but essentially you’re on a piece of the Bahamas even if it’s near Alaska. So that leads to some pretty interesting situations. Most of the big open registries like Liberia are reputable--they have a lot of good ships, they have a lot of good ship-owners—but when someone wants to be disreputable, when someone wants to ill-treat their crew, it’s pretty easy. The biggest global seafarers union, the ITF (International Transport Workers Federation) every year has to chase at least 30 million dollars in wages that are simply not being paid. They will tell you about lots of shady practices, like double booking. When times are really bad, it’s pretty easy for ship owners to abandon their ship, so you have men stuck on the ship for nine months, ten months sometimes without food, water and money, and they start having to take out loans for money lenders because they have money obligations back home. And they end up in a really desperate state.

At those times, it’s really only the seafarers’ welfare organizations who step in and get them home, and sometimes they don’t want to get home because they want to stay on the ship because they hope they’ll get their wages, so they're on there for months and months and months. If you look at the International Labor Organization’s list of abandoned ships, it’s really long. And they're always adding new ships.

Shipping seems to be a middle kind of industry – the workers aren’t necessarily exploited, but they’re certainly not treated extremely well either. Is this because of the industry’s low visibility?

It took a long time for people who were campaigning to better conditions for people in garment factories to make their case to the general public, or for us to realize where our stuff comes from, who was producing it and what their conditions were like. Shipping has been so out of sight and a little invisible for such a long time, and I understand why that is. Since most ship owners will get crews from the developing world or from Eastern Europe, we often wont know a working seafarer anymore. The other thing is that ports are now so big, so huge, that they're often not in cities anymore, they're outside of the cities and kept very secure so it’s very difficult to go visit them. There are those practical impediments to people knowing more about shipping, and there’s this sort of disconnect that we don’t notice it. We don’t really need to notice it. It’s a business-to-business industry. So as long as the things keep appearing in our supermarkets, I guess we’re just content with that.

What about a ship’s negative impacts on the world – pollution, both into the air atmospherically and into the sea, acoustically? In the future, do you think these drawbacks will mortally harm the industry? Or will they find ways to work around these issues?

These are pretty interesting times, because I do think things are changing. That Maritime Labor Convention, the Bill of Rights for seafarers, that’s a really huge deal. If it’s properly enforced, that’s going to hopefully make a big improvement to working conditions and welfare of seafarers. If you’ve got a bored or depressed seafarer, you’re not going to get the best quality of work out of him or her, so it’s important that they start considering seafarers’ welfare. In terms of environmental issues, acoustic pollution is very tricky because it would require all the current ships, the 100,000 working vessels which are currently working on the sea somewhere, to be retrofitted with more efficient propellers, and that’s just going to cost way too much money. That said though, recently California has moved its shipping lanes because of concerns with whale strikes. The understanding of acoustic pollution is there, but I don’t think that that’s as high on the agenda yet.

In terms of atmospheric pollution, there is much more movement, or at least more talk, of making ships greener and more environmentally friendly. So Maersk has this Triple E ship, which is the largest container ship that’s ever been built—it can carry 18,000 containers. And they claim it’s more efficient: it’s got a more efficient propeller, it uses less harmful fuel, so it’s quite current for shipping to talk about sustainable shipping and sustainable technology, and to look at their impact. And so they should; it hasn’t been looked at for decades, and while everyone talks about air miles, no one talks about ship miles. It does have an impact, and the big environmental campaign groups are now starting to talk more about shipping and more about the impact of shipping. So these are quite interesting times, and it will be interesting to see the kinds of technologies that come through and whether they are applied or enforced. But it’s all a little bit up in the air at this moment.


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