September 24, 2015

Shipping: the sweatshop industry?

Leading peer reviewed medical journal ‘The Lancet’ published a report on mortality recently; the British seafarer union Nautilus International applied some of the findings to seamen, linking their MLC approved near-hundred hour working week to a host of deadly medical dangers. It should startle us that working hours at sea, even under the much hyped MLC regime, expose our seamen to diabetes, stroke, cardiac diseases and cancer. That should really worry us, but it won’t. And even these dangerous hours of work are still routinely exceeded at sea. 

Since nobody cares about seamen, The Lancet almost certainly had high pressure (and much higher paying, compared to the paltry wages seamen get) shore jobs in mind when it published the report. Nonetheless, it said, amongst other things, that incidents of stroke were connected to long working hours and that such hours, especially at night with inadequate rest, were directly linked to heart disease, cancer and diabetes.

Nautilus draws an analogy between these findings and the asbestos scandal many moons ago, when established findings linking the use of asbestos to cancer were ignored by the industry for years- decades, even- until the stuff hit the fan when people went to court in Western countries and the insurance companies had their legs chopped off. I don’t know about my contemporaries, but many years ago, I felt dismayed and cheated when the asbestos link to cancer finally reached me. By then, I had been working, of and on like many of us, with asbestos on ships for years- years during which the carcinogenic effects of the substance were well known to everybody in shipping. No warning reached me; nobody did anything about the cancerous substance we were breathing in every day.

The Lancet’s findings will be similarly downplayed and essentially ignored today, like all those many findings linking fatigue directly to safety already are. It will take a US style class action suit in India or the Philippines or some such major labour supplying country to change anything- a suit that links premature death at sea to long working hours without adequate rest. The IMO, Flag and Port States, managers, industry associations and national legislators from labour supplying countries are going to do nothing except dig their heads firmly in the sand; that, as we well know, is their default setting.

Since no class action suit is not going to happen, this will. The way this industry operates will mean that it will continue to attract fewer and fewer youngsters of caliber into its murky fold. We will get the dregs, and the world will suffer along with us when incompetent, underpaid, demotivated and fatigued seamen run their ships aground, or crash them into each other, or other fun stuff. 

Meanwhile, everybody will continue to ignore fatigue and its massive impact on health and safety. Shipmanagers will continue to promote widespread fudging of working hour figures when they can get away with it- and find creative ways of circumventing regulations, like paying a bonus instead of overtime, when they can’t. While all this song and dance is going on, we will continue to kill our seafarers softly and almost maliciously. 

Unless its mentality changes, this industry risks being lumped together with other sweatshop industries that do not even pretend to care for their workers, who run them into the ground with scant regard for their health. I suspect it is already thought of as a sweatshop industry in the eyes of many of the seamen it employs, or those youngsters who are looking at seafaring as a career. 

It has betrayed its seamen so regularly that it probably deserves that label.


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