Capitalism on the High Seas

I needed to get from Australia to Europe and since a sea voyage beats flying any day – for flying is one of the worst forms of transport invented by human beings – I boarded a ship from Melbourne. Not a cruise ship full of bored and overweight passengers desperately seeking amusement in the bars and shops and nightclubs, but a container ship, a working ship plying the run. And a long run it is: from Melbourne to Tilbury, via New Zealand, Panama, the Caribbean and the east coast of the USA. Two massive oceans, five seas, the Panama Canal, all in 37 days. Our ship is the La Tour, owned and run by CMA-CGM, the French company supplying the French possessions in the Pacific, sailing vast stretches of open sea on a route followed by few others.

Chinese built in 2000, La Tour is a smooth, clean, relatively modern and fast ship. Our cabin is anything but compact, reserved for spare voyagers – the ‘owner’ perhaps, company executives, repair crews for engine overhauls, and passengers. A bedroom, bathroom and living space with a couple of portholes, plus access to the communal lounge, small gym downstairs – and pretty much anywhere else on the ship. On board we have 23 officers and crew: the captain and engineers are from the Balkans, from Montenegro and Croatia, while the crew and the three mates are Filipinos – hard-working and competent sailors who are not confrontational, preferring quite means of addressing problems when they arise. Over the next long month I would get to know many of them very well, sharing stories and drinks, singing karaoke, celebrating an equatorial barbeque, gaining an insight into the sailor’s life, pondering sex on the high seas …

But for now I ponder a weightier question: capitalism on the high seas. The ship may be a waterborne village in motion, surrounded by the dominant element on this water planet, and those on board may enjoy the simple solitude of the oceans while bending their thoughts homeward, but the main reason the ship plies these routes is economic. Beneath the patriotic flag-waving and chest-beating claims to being the third largest shipping company in the world, this company is in the business of making a profit. And they do so by generating surplus value – trying not to pay the workers what they are worth and charging more than they should for the goods shipped. In short, cost-cutting here; over-pricing there. This economic reality influences every moment of one’s day on a container ship.

Everyday Life

So let us begin with the seemingly small moments of everyday life and then work our way to the big picture. Initially, the major events of the world seem very distant from our day-to-day reality, appearing only as printouts on the back of used paper from the captain – the World Cup, Tour de France, an oil spill … More interesting and important for our daily lives is the new menu at breakfast. The first meal of the day may be largely the same (four different versions of egg on toast; four types of ‘breakfast meat’, should you want them; some more toast), but the rest vary in the hands of a creative cook. So we read the new menu for lunch and dinner with great interest.

Why? Are we starved for news, seizing on the smallest piece of information like hungry lions? Not at all, for precisely with the food does capitalism on the high seas influence our lives. From the deckhand to the captain, all talk of the dropping food budget – from USD $12 to $9 to $7.25 per person per day – and the consequent pressures on the cooks and what can and cannot be requisitioned. Even more, the company has decided that the second cook is to go in Rotterdam, leaving them with but one cook.

As these complaints roll on, I find a shopping list for 23 sailors and passengers, from the back of a news print-out:

Bonded stores:

Beer                                                               8 Cases

Cigarettes                                   79 CTN        15800 Stick

Whisky:

Johnny Walkers Red, 700 ml,      4 Btl             2.80 Litres

Johnny Walkers Red, 1 Ltr          7 Btl             7.00 Litres

Liquor:

Bacardi Rum, white, 1L               2 Btl             2.00 Litres

Ricard Aperatif, 1L                     7 Btl             7.00 Litres

Wine:

Sparkling wine Seaviw Brut (75cl) 9 Btl            6.75 Litres

Assorted red/white wine (75cl)   65 Btl           48.75 Litres

Cask wine red/white, $L & 5L each 17 Cask    76.00 Litres

Engine:

Fuel oil                                                           196 MT

Diesel oil                                                        146.0 MT

Lube oil                                                          51,560.0 Litres

Fresh water                                                    500.0 MT

General:

Detergent & soap                                           40 kgs

Grease                                                            550 kgs

Paint                                                              1,815 Ltrs

Thinner                                                          274 Ltrs

Kerosene and solvent                                     nil

Steward:

Cereal & pasta                                                35.0 Kgs

Coffee ground & instant                                 5.8 Kgs

Tea (in bag @ 2 gr.)                                        8.0 Box

Sugar                                                              21.0 Kgs

Salt                                                                 8.0 Kgs

Fresh meat                                                     511.0 Kgs

Fresh fish                                                       155.0 Kgs

All canned food                                              310.0 Kgs

Eggs                                                               900.0 Pcs

Fruit, fish                                                        53.0 Kgs

Vegetable, fresh                                              114.0 Kgs

Butter                                                             8.0 Kgs

Margarine                                                       nil

Cheese                                                           33.0 Kgs

Milk                                                               96.0 Ltrs

Bread                                                             30.0 Lvs

Flour                                                              75.0 Kgs

Spices                                                             5.0 Kgs

An extraordinary insight into what makes a ship tick.

Yet, while the dwindling amount of food is the major focus, everywhere one looks, miniscule cost-cutting is in place – all ‘justified’ by the ongoing economic crisis that began in 2008. For example, the first mate feels that he is caught between the crew and the company, with the latter making demands for stringency and the crew complaining. He knows full well that as a Filipino chief officer, he earns far less than someone from, say Europe or the USA, but it is still big money at home and he has more work than he can take on. The chief engineer (from Rijeka) finds it ridiculous that he should be questioned about every request for spare parts and maintenance. ‘We used to have four engineers’, he says, ‘but they want to cut us down to two’. The catch is that then they have to pay for extra personnel while in port for maintenance work. The captain talks of the communications equipment, which was replaced recently with a much cheaper version, which also happens to be far less effective. Now he can wait for up to two hours for a satellite connection in order to carry on the necessary business of a container ship.

Marx’s old point is still perfectly valid: in order to increase profits and market share, companies seek to cut costs in terms of personnel and equipment, shaving wherever possible, flogging people to work harder for less. Of course, the excuse for such cuts is hard economic times, a recession, the worst downturn since the Great Depression. But do they increase expenditure again when business improves?

Sailors (Workers)

The brunt of these perpetual efforts to squeeze out extra surplus falls on the sailors themselves. Seeing them at work, calling the deck of the ship their home for nine months at a time, you soon realise that 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. The perversity of the situation is that at this time and place, the current arrangements suit this Filipino crew. How? Again and again, I ask them – able seamen, bosun, steward, cook, perhaps a third or first mate – why they went to sea. Some say it is tradition, but all say it is money. Even at their reduced wages, it is more than they could earn at home. Better still, as Lindo the steward tells me, they are paid in US dollars – worth even more at home.

Inevitably, they send money home to support families, as do the ‘maids’ and cleaners who work in hotels in Copenhagen, wealthy homes in Hong Kong … wherever Filipino maids are wanted. It is a whole economy that relies on a large slab of its able workforce going overseas to send money home. Although it counts as a rational response in a deeply irrational situation, attempting to extract a morsel or two from a feast that is largely denied them, in the end it suits the owners of capital far more than underpaid Filipino workers.

But are they competent? A captain on an earlier ship, the Hansa Flensburg, once 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 is 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 encounter capable, hard-working seaman, welding, painting, greasing, operating a neat and tidy ship. Ideal if you are a shipping company: they work hard and competently and accept far lower pay packets.

Perhaps crews like this one may have the last laugh. With their quantitative increase in skills, crews and officers may eventually lead to qualitative change: Filipino, Kiribati, or even Montenegrin or Russian, may well bring about a quiet mutiny at the heart of capitalist trade. One can only hope so.

What about the officers whom these mutineers would overthrow? Do they share the perspective of the crew? Or are they a distinct on-board ruling class? The answer is yes to both questions. On board the ship itself, they do seem to function like a ruling class. Often the shipping companies attempt to reinforce the difference by clearly demarcating the in-board ruling class from the crew by ensuring the officers are from a different linguistic, ethnic and national background. But once we move beyond the confines of the ship, the officers too are subject to the real owners of capital. For example, like the crew, the officers fudge their hours when in port (10 hours is mandated for rest); everyone knows it happens, the authorities keep checking paperwork to pretend it doesn’t. On the Japan (Tokyo, Yokohama), Korea (Pusan), China (Shanghai, Tianjin, Shenzhen, Fuzhou, Hong Kong etc) run, it is perhaps two hours between ports, so in a week you may get one or two hours sleep a night. Then accidents happen.

Ship

Ultimately, both crew and officers serve the ship and its contents. Or rather, while they serve the company and generate its profits, the way they do so is to focus all their energies on the ship and its ‘vital’ contents. The ship itself is a product of the Chinese shipyards, about ten years old. A cheap Chinese ship? In some quarters it is fashionable to think so. But as the chief engineer points out, the Chinese know perfectly well how to build prohibitively expensive state-of-the-art ships; it all depends on how much the client is willing to spend and in most cases those buyers want cheaper ships. Why? Firstly, for the buyer an expensive ship that will last thirty years or more is no good, since by the time you have paid it off it will be hopelessly obsolete. So you order a cheaper one without all the fancy gear, which will be paid off in a few years and can then turn a handsome profit for a few more before it is sold – at the moment when problems begin showing up. Secondly, for the manufacturer a ship of lesser quality has a built-in obsolescence, since it will need to be replaced sooner. As with washing machines and computers and mobile phones, so also with ships.

After all, as a buyer you need to reserve funds to run the thing and buy fuel. Halfway between diesel and oil, that fuel is so thick it needs to be warmed in colder climes before it can be used. And given the volumes, they speak not of litres but of tonnes. At about the 80 revs a minute needed to sustain a speedier vessel like this one at 20 knots, the engine burns about 100 tonnes a day. A quick calculation: with roughly three days’ stoppage for six ports in a 37 day voyage, that means we burn 3400 tonnes for our voyage – all of which does not include diesel for the four generators and fuel oil heater. It takes little imagination to see that with Peak Oil, the shipping industry is severely fucked unless it finds an alternative mode of propulsion. The only viable option left is sail.

Nonetheless, the ship’s purpose is to carry cargo. So while we are engaged in calculations, let me offer a few more. The maximum load for this ship is 28,000 tonnes, made up of no more than 1100 containers, some full, some empty. According to Marisec, as of October 2010, the world has about 44,000 ships that carry freight (and 6600 passenger ships). Given that this is a medium-sized ship, we can multiply the amount this ship carries with the number of ships and come up with a reasonable idea of the amount of material goods shipped around the world with each voyage: 1,232,000,000 tonnes. Mind you, that is not per year, but per voyage.

If we want to find a rough calculation of how much freight is moved per year, we may take the number of containers in the world (which ship 90% of all cargo), take their average capacity at 27,500 kg (not including the 4000 kg of the container itself) and multiply by the number of trips made each year for each container. These figures come from 2005.

Number of containers:      18,000,000

Average capacity:              27,500 kg

Subtotal:                           495, 000,000 tonnes

Number of trips per year: 200,000,000

Total:                               99,000,000,000,000,000 tonnes per year

Increase to 100% (from 90%):  110,000,000,000,000,000 tonnes per year.

As the engineer says: people shift a lot of crap.

All of these thoughts – whiling away the time on a long voyage – lead me to another point that first struck me in the middle of the Pacific: what of the much-vaunted volatilisation of the market? This is supposedly the generation of wealth out of speculation on finances and the money markets, the removal of any material base in the old sense for the generation of surplus value (which winds up being profit most of the time). One has only to travel on a medium-sized freighter like this one, or perhaps a tanker, in order to see the hard, physical reality of the stuff unloaded and loaded at each port, the sheer volume that this one ship can hold. Multiply by hundreds and thousands of ships like this, as well as the oil tankers and gas tankers and coal bunkers and, plying the world’s trade routes … they are as concrete as ever and those who work on them and for them are as exploited as ever.

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

Fifteenth day of the voyage; eighth day of the Pacific crossing.

Today marks the halfway point of our Pacific crossing. Being in the middle of the Pacific Ocean has a curious estrangement effect. It feels like summer (which has come early), the water looks inviting, and given that I swim at the beach for more than half the year – all of summer and most of spring, summer and autumn – I have the urge to go for a swim. But then I know that as a MOB (man overboard) in the middle of the Pacific I would have little chance of survival, given the difficulty of keeping one’s eye on a face bobbing in the water, the speed of the ship and its slow turn.

The big events of the world seem very distant from our day to day reality, appearing only as printouts on the back of used paper from the captain – World Cup Special; Stop Press; Britain Today (of all things). Julia Gillard might have become prime minister of Australia, we may have an election coming (I do not know as yet), the World Cup, Tour de France, Gulf of Mexico oil spill …

More interesting and important for our daily lives is the new menu at breakfast. The first meal of the day may be the same (four different versions of egg on toast; four types of breakfast meat, should you want them; some more toast), but after that everyone reads the menu for lunch and dinner with great interest. Without the incessant contact of internet, television and radio, life is much simpler, focused on fewer needs (it does help that we don’t have to clean, acquire food and prepare it).

More real is the daily business of capitalism on the high seas. I do not mean the fact that we carry more than 20,000 tons of freight and that we belt along at full speed in order to deliver it on time – that much is obvious. Instead I mean the small details that bedevil the lives of all on board. The captain talks of cost-cutting measures: the communications equipment was replaced recently for one that is far less effective and with smaller antennae – cheaper of course – so that now he can wait for up to two hours for a satellite connection to carry on the necessary business of container ship; he talks of the dropping food budget – from USD $12 to $9 to $7.25 per person per day – and the consequent pressures on the cooks and his own requisitioning ability. The first mate feels he is caught between the crew and the company, with the latter making demands for stringency and the crew complaining. He knows full well that as a Filipino chief officer, he gets far less than someone from, say Europe or the USA, but it is still big money at home and he has more work than he can take on. The chief engineer finds it a bit much that he should be questioned about requests for spare parts and why maintenance has to happen now and not later. We used to have four engineers, he said, but they want to cut us down to two. The catch is that then they have to pay for extra personnel while in port for maintenance work. Marx’s old point is still perfectly valid: in order to increase profits and market share, companies seek to cut costs in terms of personnel and equipment, shaving wherever possible, flogging people to work harder for less. Of course, the excuse for such cuts is hard economic times, a recession, the worst downturn since the Great Depression. But do they increase expenditure again when business improves?

A telling point from the engineer regarding ships: it is not that the Chinese build inferior ships because they don’t know how to build good ships. The reason lies with the one who orders a ship and that for two reasons. Firstly, for the buyer an expensive one that will last 30 years or more is no good, since by the time you have paid it off, it will be hopelessly obsolete. So you order a cheaper one without all the fancy gear, which will be paid off in a few years and can then turn a handsome profit for a few more years before it is sold – at the moment when problems begin showing up. Secondly, for the manufacturer a ship of lesser quality has a built-in obsolescence, since it will need to be replaced sooner. As with washing machines and computers and mobile phones, so also with ships.

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

Tenth day of the voyage; third day of the Pacific crossing.

The rhythm of one’s day while at sea. It turns around the meals and what one does with the time in between: breakfast 7:30 to 8:30, lunch 12:00 to 13:00, dinner 18:00 to 19:00. Unless there was a talker (he had gone in Napier!) or the captain felt like a chat, as he did today, the meal usually took half an hour. The great excitement was reading the menu for the day (apart from breakfast, it was always new) or the news print-out – the 2010 World Cup results, or Tour-de-France, or, for some reason that was beyond me since there was no-one on the ship from that part of the world, ‘Britain today’. Between meals, the times in the morning and afternoon were roughly the same, give or take half an hour, and I made an effort to get up well before breakfast and spend a quiet half hour on the bridge, pondering the ocean over a cup of tea. The four-hour stretches were spent writing, putting together a book in morning, writing an article in the afternoon, photo processing, working on myDanish and reading in the evening. The only other piece of the day was the hour in the crew gym: I used the rowing machine and simple but effective weight machine, inventing ever new exercises to amuse myself, as well as a game of table tennis on a rolling ship after a big meal.

A quiet captain opens up over lunch, even though we sit at different tables. Surprisingly … shipping is the topic. I discover that he has a university degree from the Maritime University in Montenegro – a four year course that one must take to become a master – although it also requires experience, for he has been at sea for well over a decade. But there are even maritime high-schools (also four years) for those who wish to follow the tradition. His own father is a professor at such a high school after having been a master himself. And the Russians, I ask? Yes, they come there to train, as do Ukrainians and Romanians and Turks and so on. What about work in the economic downturn? No problems, he says, since CMA-CGM has kept up its routes. In fact, there is a severe shortage of officers worldwide, in the vicinity of 1500. So the push is to reduce the requirements to become an officer. And also to reduce the pay – hence the Filipino officers.

He also made the point that they all fudge their hours when in port (10 hours is mandated for rest but that is hardly possible in port). On the Japan (Tokyo, Yokohama), Korea (Pusan), China (Shanghai, Tianjin, Shenzhen, Fuzhou, Hong Kong etc) run, it is perhaps two hours between ports, so in a week you may get one or two hours sleep a night. Then accidents happen. As also with the smaller feeder ships (from small ports to large), which at times do not have harbour pilots coming on board, or have skeleton crews of four or five. Even on this ship 14 is the minimum – they will lose a cook in Rotterdam – although new requirements push the number up (such as the need to have someone on security watch the whole time in port). Everywhere they can cut costs they do: food allocation was recently dropped from $9.00 per person per day to $7.50, so he has to be very careful where and what he requisitions.

Crew combinations? I mentioned Kiribati crews, Chinese crews, Papuan crews, Koreans – the ones I had encountered. He had worked also with Indonesian, Japanese and Indian crews. Some combinations work; some don’t, but it is a matter for anthropological study. CMA-CGM finds that a few senior European officers work well with Filipino crews, but that Indian and Filipino do not (caste systems from India), or that European and Indonesian is not a good mix. So they are careful about organising crews, since they spend a long time together in restricted conditions.

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

The second day of the Pacific Crossing, ninth day on board.

Last night the mate on watch announced that we would repeat the same day, 1 August, since we were crossing the International Date Line. A first, I must admit, to have exactly the same day pass. On a plane, you leave late on one day and arrive on its morning in North America, but it is nothing like this, when the whole day simply repeats. A hint of ‘Groundhog Day’?

Tonight the shy first mate, having become used to me, opened up some more. He wondered whether we were bored, how much we paid (a lot for him!), why we chose to go by sea. We talked more openly of the ship’s cook – I thought he was pretty good, but the mate said they always complained about the cook. He laughed at the invitation we had received to the third engineer’s birthday party, especially when I said I had never sung Karaoke before. Sometimes we have a band on board, he said, since many play instruments. But I asked about contracts and work, especially in light of the many captains and officers who could not get work with the world’s economic woes. We are paid less than them, he said simply, but it is big money at home, so we don’t mind. We have work. What did they do with the money? According to the contract 80% had to go home, although what you did with it after that was your own business. Like the many other Filipinos working overseas, I mentioned. Did he like working as mate? He wasn’t bored, he assured me, for it was hard work, but he did find himself between the shipping company and the crew, each making demands one way or the other.