Rose George, January 2011
It was only late afternoon, but already dark and stormy, on the Thursday of the week before Christmas 2009, when the cargo freighter Danny FII approached the Lebanese port of Tripoli en route from Uruguay to Syria. She carried 18,000 cattle, 10,000 sheep and 83 humans, including four passengers, and had been converted from a car carrier into a modern-day Noah’s Ark. Danny FII was not a new ship, but she was modern, because her crew was multi-global: a British captain and chief engineer, 59 Pakistanis, some Filipinos, a Lebanese and a Syrian. She was high-sided as car-carriers are, with some rust. Though she was Uruguayan, she flew another country’s flag. In all respects, she was an average member of the 90,000-strong fleet of freighters that sail the seas, bringing us 95 per cent of everything that we consume, from the computer that I write this on, to the ink on this page, and the coffee that you drink while you read this.
Eleven miles out from Tripoli, the night, the weather and Danny FII combined to create a fatal outcome. The details are still unknown, but Danny FII changed course, then capsized. Twenty-three sailors reached the lifeboats, but they capsized too, and the seas filled with drowning animals and men. There were 40 survivors, and 43 dead, including the captain, who went down with his ship. And so Danny FII was added to the 36 other ships that sunk that year, and the 43 were added to the estimated 2000 or so who lose their lives annually, and yet there were no headlines and not much attention paid. Consider the reaction if 37 airliners crashed every year, or 37 trains, and if it happened every year, regular as a shipping schedule. In 1910, the journalist F. R. Bullen wrote that we regarded this “indispensable bridging of the ocean” as “no more needing our thoughtful attention than the recurrence of the seasons or the incidence of day and night.” Nothing has changed. Our watery world has always depended on ships, and always disdained the men who sail them. The man who goes to sea, wrote Marco Polo, is a man in despair. This is still true, but today’s man of the sea is also probably poor, probably exploited, and living a life that contains at the least chronic fatigue and overwork (as a ship carrying 7000 containers will have a crew of 20, when a similar sized naval frigate will carry 1000 personnel); boredom and exploitation, pirates and danger. Suicide rates of seafarers are triple those of land-based occupations, and carrying sea cargo is the second most deadly job on the planet after fishing. The International Transport Federation, which represents seafarers, said recently that “the maritime and fishing industries continue to allow astonishing abuses of human rights of those working in the sector. Seafarers and fishers are routinely made to work in conditions that would not be acceptable in civilised society.” Only last year a young South African cadet named Akhona Geveza was found floating in the sea, an hour after reporting that she had been raped by a senior officer. An investigation by South Africa’s Sunday Times newspaper interviewed other cadets and found two made pregnant by senior officers; two male cadets raped; and a widespread atmosphere of intimidation. “When we arrived,” one female cadet told the newspaper, “we were told that the sea is no man’s land and that what happens at sea, stays at sea.” The International Commission on Shipping estimates that thousands of seafarers, working on 10-15% of the world’s ships “work in slave conditions, with minimal safety, long hours for little or no pay, starvation diets, rape and beatings.” The rest just have to deal with dangerous fatigue, isolation and pirates. All to bring us our Fairtrade coffee and our ethically sourced clothes.
A UK navy admiral last year accused Britons of “sea blindness;” of having no idea what sea life is like. But how can we? Shore and sea lives are nothing like. You would expect for example that the families of Danny FII dead crew would be compensated, because that is what happens in shore life, ideally, where there are checks and balances and courts and redress. But the men of Danny FII lived in a world that is essentially lawless. There are plenty of laws on paper. But despite the UN’s best efforts, no-one governs the sea, and no-one ever has. When something goes wrong at sea, the seafarer has nowhere to turn to. “A land-based person would have national jurisdiction,” says Deirdre Fitzpatrick of the International Transport Federation, which represents seafarers. “I’m in the UK, my problem is here, and I know where to go for help. If you are Filipino, on a Panamanian-flagged ship, travelling from South Africa to the Netherlands, what law is going to govern you? You are a total moving target.” International, multinational, transnational: this is normal in shipping, an industry whose complexity would please off-shore bankers. Crews of five or more nationalities are standard, and 60 per cent of ships now fly a flag of a country that is not that of their owner. These days, the average ship in British ports is unlikely to have either a British flag or a British crew. The only thing you can predict with certainty about it is that its sailors will be from poor countries, and they will be knackered. Occasionally, they will also be unpaid, or worse, which is where Tommy Molloy comes in.
An inspector for the International Transport Federation based in Liverpool, Molloy spends his days inspecting whichever of the world’s freighters has arrived at the quays of Liverpool and Birkenhead, to see if they pass muster. We meet in New Brighton, old-time seaside resort for Liverpool, now supplanted by Ryanair and short-haul sunshine. His office is on a retirement estate for ex-seafarers run by Nautilus, a seafaring union. On the day I visit, the sun is blazing and the bowling green is green, and there is a lovely view over the Mersey. All the old seafarers here are British, and “they wouldn’t recognise the industry today,” says Molloy, as we drive at pensioner speed through the lanes. But he hardly ever sees a Brit on the ships that call here, because they cost too much in wages, and expect things like being paid on time, or having the right to be in a union, that ship-owners can avoid quite easily and legally by flying a “flag of convenience,” a responsibility-avoidance system unique to shipping. It is common to see ships whose home port, painted on the stern, is Monrovia, Liberia, whose port when I visited in 2006 was wrecked by war and featured only a bullet-ridden rusting ship on its side in brown waters. But that doesn’t matter, because Liberia’s shipping registry is actually run by a company in Virginia, USA. Many nations license out their flag like a brand, so that ships belong to a nation state that supplies none of the governance or oversight that it should. Liberia doesn’t require its ship-owners to have any holdings in Liberia, ,or even to give their names, a practice which makes tracking down bad ship-owners almost impossible. Flagging out your ship, an Australian maritime union wrote recently, is like being able to register your car in Bali so you can drive it on Australian roads without having to get the brakes fixed.” There are decent open registries, but questionable ones abound. North Korea has a large fleet. When Cambodia-flagged ships got involved in too many sinkings and drug trafficking investigations, the registry office in Singapore was closed and two weeks later re-opened as Mongolia’s. The United Nations Law of the Sea specifies that there should be a “genuine link” between the flag-owner and the state. It took years for diplomats to agree on this. They are now spending years deciding what a genuine link should consist of. In practice, when anything goes wrong, the seafarer is on his own.
I drive with Molloy to Birkenhead docks. He has the right to visit ships that have signed an ITF agreement promising to respect certain wage levels and hours of rest. Otherwise he asks politely to visit. Shipping is the only industry that regulates working hours by hours of rest, because it would be impossible to conform to hours of work limits. On a recent passage I took, on a ship with remarkably high standards, conforming to regulations was impossible. In port, crews were working 18 hours a day, because shipping these days is 24 hours, 7 days a week. The days of days in port and the delights of sailor towns are long gone. With containerization, a ship can be loaded and unloaded and gone in 24 hours. Some crew members on my ship hadn’t been ashore in months. “I’ve been to New York, Hong Kong and Tokyo,” the chief engineer said, “And they all look like my engine room.”
Molloy doesn’t see many decent ships. “I deal with the dirty end of the industry.” The first ship though is fine. Hohe Bank is flagged in Antigua, owned by Germans, managed by Brits, built by Chinese and with an Indonesian crew and Russian officers. Normal, in other words. Molloy hands out ITF magazines in Russian and some Indonesian language, and they are pleased to get them, because it is human contact, which they don’t get much of. Only three percent of ratings have any internet access at sea, and only 16 percent of officers. Plenty of seafarers I meet tell me their job is like being “at prison with a salary.” Wrong, wrote the Maritime Charities Funding Commission, which found that “the provision of leisure, recreation, religious service and communication facilities are better in UK prisons than […] on many ships our respondents worked aboard.”
The ship “house” where seafarers live, is small but clean. But Molloy gives me a powerpoint presentation of some ships he has seen. Mouldy, filthy couches. Rotting fruit and meat. I hear complaints that ship-chandlers – suppliers – regularly give ships poor quality food, because they can, when a ship is in port for 24 hours and choice is limited. Green bananas, sub-standard meat. But the crew doesn’t complain here and the paperwork is orderly. Still, even on the better ships, Molloy can go aboard and be there for days. “You’ll find that all the crew have exceeded their contracts. We always try to persuade them to leave but often they don’t want to.” Non-officers don’t have permanent contracts, so staying at sea longer means more money and less need to immediately look for work. I met Filipinos with four children who had missed every birth and every birthday. It is the price they pay. “We call it dollar for homesickness,” one said.
On Hohe Bank, Molloy warns the officers to be careful: thieves like to steal from ships. The Russians look surprised. Isn’t this civilised England? But bad things can happen in civilised England, and have happened at this dock. The abandonment of ships peaks during times of recession, but it happens all the time, usually when an unscrupulous owner has run out of money and disappears, leaving a crew with no wages or supplies. The worst cases happen overseas, such as that of Arabian Victory, stranded in Dubai in 2002 for 45 days in temperatures of 44 degrees celsius. The Indian and Ukrainian crew didn’t even have water. Appeals to Dubai authorities, the flag state (Belize, in this case) and the Indian consulate failed. When the crew decided to sail to India for help, the Iraqi owner tried to arrest them for hijacking.
Arabian Victory’s case is extreme, but Molloy sees abuse that is alarming for being so routine. He boarded one Greek-owned ship and found that the Filipino crew and officers hadn’t been paid for months. “The captain got on the phone to the company and told me $48,000 was being wired immediately. I said, hang on, but I haven’t even calculated the total yet, then I did and it was $47,600. They knew exactly what they owed.” Last year the ITF recovered $30 million in unpaid wages. Why do owners think they can get away with it? Because they can, when a seafarer has no means of contacting a union or help.
Once when Molloy got money for the crew, he had a call at 3am from a crew member. “He was at Manchester Airport on his way home. He said, ‘I’m the only one who refused to give the money back as soon as you got off the ship, so they kicked me off.’” But who is going to enforce anything? When a crew is abandoned, the ITF can apply to the Admiralty Court to have the ship arrested and eventually sold. But this can take 12 weeks, and the sailors have no money and no food. So thank God for God-squadders. Welfare organisations such as the Sailors Society, Mission to Seafarers and Stella Maris, all run by churches, are often the only solace for exploited seafarers. They are crucial especially when the crew doesn’t want to leave for fear they will never get paid. Molloy tells of one Sri Lankan who told him, “If you send me home, I will cut my throat.” Like thousands of seafarers, he had coped with not being paid by taking loans from moneylenders, who were threatening to kill his family. Russians and Ukrainians are more likely to stand up for themselves, says Molloy, but the Filipinos will resist longer because of blacklisting, a practice that no-one admits to but which is widely used amongst the crewing agencies in the Philippines. Roy Paul, who looks after Filipino seafarers for the ITF’s Seafarers Trust, says it is common practice. “You’ll have someone who has worked for a ship for four or five years, then makes a complaint against, for example, a racist captain. Suddenly the agency has no ship for him, though it did for four years.” The conditions that Molloy sees every day would cause outrage ashore.
But at sea, anything goes, including getting jailed for doing the right thing, as happened to Apostolas Mangouras, a Greek captain who spent four days battling terrible seas off Spain and trying to save his oil tanker Prestige because the Spanish authorities had refused him a safe port. He failed, came ashore, and was imprisoned for months. In South Korea, when the Indian captain Jasprit Chawla anchored where he was told to, and was hit by a Samsung Heavy Industries barge with questionable navigational skills, Chawla was arrested, denied access to a lawyer and imprisoned. He was kept in isolation for a month and only released 18 months later after a global outcry. “You land a plane at sea and you’re a hero,” says Roy Paul. “You put a ship on land, and you’re a criminal.”
“I have to stress that most ship-owners are good,” says Deirdre Fitzpatrick. “They know that their most valuable asset is their employees.” They also know that there is a worldwide shortage of officers (a 33, 000 shortfall at last count). “They know that the maritime career isn’t attractive any more. They want to improve shipping’s image.” Campaigners hope that this will be the pressure point for an industry to clean up its act. Not much else seems to be working. Even the Fairtrade Foundation, bringing us our conscience-friendly coffee, is defeated by the complexities and realities of this extraordinary, unique industry. “We work with nearly 900 producer organisations in 60 countries across the developing world,” says Fairtrade’s Ian Bretman, ‘who ship to thousands of traders in over 20 different markets. Incorporating shipping requirements into our standards and certification processes would add to auditing costs.” It would be nice, he continues, to insist on ships that have signed ITF agreements or to avoid flags of convenience, but without any way of monitoring, “this would be merely an empty gesture.” Even so, “I hope that it will not be too long before we can consider what practical support we would offer to trade unions in the maritime and shipping industries so that seafarers can also see the benefits of Fairtrade.”
None of the seafarers I met share this optimism. In a seafarers’ centre, I ask Menandro, a ship’s cook, if he would send his son to sea. He used to be a civil servant in the Philippines, but the economy collapsed and only the shipping agencies were hiring. He now spends his days bringing us everything we need to survive, the sweets that we suck and the joints that we carve. Menandro is an educated and articulate man, but his answer is brief. “No, no and no. I am doing this so he doesn’t have to. This is no life.”