Ship’s Log: Day Seven (Melbourne to Tilbury)

A few hours along the east coast of the north island of New Zealand, from Napier to Tauranga.

Today at last I was permitted out on the deck: safety helmet on, I picked my way up the port side,

past the pilot access points,

the stages and stacks of containers, ropes, grease pots, ladders, storage and safety cubicles, until I emerged in the open space of the bow.

The zone of the bosun and his mate, AB Lorenzo of the pock-marked face and deft table-tennis hand. The bosun looked for like a pirate with his bandana, whiskers and twinkling eyes. He told me he came from the south of the Philippines, where the Muslim separatists are working towards their own state. Does that create tensions? I asked. No, we Christians and Muslims just live amongst each other … and my brother is a senior officer in the army. No trouble.

He told me that despite the long history of Spanish colonialism, the language is no longer taught at school. Grandparents might know some Spanish, but apart from the official language, Tagalog, the kids want to learn English. Of course, it also had much to do with the struggle for independence and throwing off the Spanish yoke.

Seeing them at work, calling the deck of the ship their home for nine months at a time, I pondered the labour of an able seaman. Stripped back of the romance of a life at sea, it is hard, physical labour. Part of the international working class, they toil with heavy machinery, with all its dangers and concerns with safety, much like train drivers and truck drivers, miners and farmers. And it is their labour that keeps capitalism running. Obvious enough, but their work is usually (and conveniently) hidden on passenger vessels; here you simply can’t miss it.

The crew is Filipino, a common enough feature of international freighter shipping. They may be Korean, or Kiribati, or Chinese, but the reason is the same: they are a cheap labour source that keeps costs down. Or rather, they enable a greater profit margin for the companies who employ them and ship all that crap around the world. But at this time and place, the current arrangements suit this Filipino crew. How? Again and again, I would ask individuals – a first mate or a third mate, the steward, the bosun, an able seaman – why they went to sea. Some would say it was tradition, but all would say it was money. Even at the reduced wages they were on, it was more than they could earn at home. Better still, as Lindo the steward told me, they were paid in US dollars – worth even more at home, where USD $1.00 = 43 Filipino pesos.

Inevitably, they sent money home to support families, as did the ‘maids’ and cleaners who work in hotels in Copenhagen, wealthy homes in Hong Kong … wherever Filipino maids were wanted. A whole economy that relies on a large slab of its able workforce going overseas to send money home. Actually, I suspect they make the most of the situation, since it really suits the owners of capital far more than underpaid Filipino workers.

But are they competent? A captain on the Hansa Flensburg in 2008 opined: pay peanuts and you get monkeys. And the news reports of shipwrecks (such as the Pasha Bulker in Newcastle in 2007) will always make the point that the crew was Filipino, or Korean or what have you. The implication: incompetence is a national trait. The reality couldn’t be further from the truth, since I encountered capable, hard-working seaman, welding, painting, greasing, operating a neat and tidy ship.

Perhaps crews like this one will have the last laugh. As this working class replaces an older one and as the officers themselves become Filipino, Kiribati, or even Montenegrin or Russian, then they will have acquired the complex skills of navigating freight around the world while those who lament the change will have lost them.

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