At any moment, nearly 50,000 cargo ships are crossing the oceans, carrying more than 5 million containers of goods destined for countries around the world. Fueling this massive operation is an equally large workforce of more than 1.6 million people, many of whom hail from developing countries such as Indonesia, Ukraine, India, and the Philippines. Collectively, these sailors ensure not only the continued success of global commerce, but also the safe movement of goods that are essential to the wellbeing of billions of people.
However, despite the importance of their roles, sailors do not reap commensurate benefits—or in fact, much benefit at all. The maritime industry, which includes both cargo ships and passenger-carrying cruise ships, relies heavily on low-cost labor sourced directly from developing countries. Many sailors sign fixed-term contracts to serve on a particular ship for approximately four to six months; once their term ends, they typically return home to rest before joining another ship on a new contract. While on board, they work long hours and face enormous risks. One estimate suggests that approximately 2,000 sailors lose their lives every year while on the job; many more injuries and deaths have gone unreported. Furthermore, piracy also threatens the physical safety of ships and their crews even in heavily protected areas that see frequent ship traffic.
Although sailors face highly dangerous conditions, they have very little protection from their employers, the international legal framework, and their home countries. Since their floating workplaces are almost always in international waters, no single country has the legal jurisdiction necessary to enforce labor rights and workplace safety. Even the United Nations (UN) has struggled to address this issue. For example, the international body’s Law of the Sea Convention, adopted in 1982, does not address the dilemmas that sailors face in attempting to seek recourse for injustices suffered on the high seas. This status quo places an undue burden on the disadvantaged sailors, and unless the international community decides to accelerate the pace of regulation, sailor discontent may soon spark coordinated labor actions that threaten not only the stability of international supply chains, but also global security itself.
Deregulating the High Seas
At its core, the plight of modern sailors is the product of economic incentives. The cost efficiency of ocean shipping comes not just from optimizing fuel usage or leveraging economies of scale, but also from the industry’s avoidance of all types of unnecessary costs. Many ships around the world carry so-called flags of convenience: by registering in a country with lax safety regulations, fewer taxes, and a lower minimum wage, shipowners can avoid costly laws and reduce their exposure to legal action. At the same time, the registering countries have little incentive to change their regulations because they generate a significant amount of revenue. Although such countries may collect fewer taxes on each ship than other countries, the income quickly adds up: half of the world’s ocean fleet is registered in Panama, Liberia, and the Marshall Islands, three relatively small countries that have few regulations for ships and the sailors aboard them. The lack of an economic incentive to change the status quo only contributes to regulatory stagnation, thus depriving maritime workers of many benefits that their land-based counterparts receive.
In addition to cost-cutting schemes, the ongoing volatility of the shipping industry also adversely impacts labor conditions. In a sector dominated by both very small and very large firms, the competition between companies is immense. For instance, when small shipowners run into financial trouble, they often deprive sailors of their pay. In more egregious situations, crews could be stranded at sea without supplies or fuel. This abandonment of sailors has even been compared to modern slavery because the ocean physically prevents sailors from leaving their workplace and returning home. Even large fleet owners are not immune to this trend. When Hanjin, South Korea’s largest shipping firm, declared bankruptcy in 2016, its demise not only deprived sailors of their pay, but also stranded more than 60 staffed vessels at sea. The hundreds of crew members onboard were unable to even call at any port around the world because there was no assurance that the company would pay docking fees. Such incidents demonstrate the difficult conditions that today’s sailors toil under in exchange for little compensation or protection.
However, it should theoretically be possible to develop regulations to reshape the incentive structure and limit the negative externalities with regard to labor in the global shipping industry. The fact that the international order has not adopted such regulations is a clear indication of a systematic failure to protect the rights of sailors. For example, the International Maritime Organization (IMO)—the UN agency responsible for shipping—notes that individual governments are responsible for implementing and enforcing laws. The IMO further states that the cost of developing police powers to enforce UN regulations globally would be prohibitively expensive, implicitly rendering such regulations useless. These statements also serve as an acknowledgement that even if the UN had funding for a police force, most UN member states would not allow ships flying their flag to be boarded in international waters, thus making enforcement all but impossible. More significantly, these statements are a capitulation to the status quo, which benefits shipowners, convenience-flag countries, and consumers at the expense of sailors. Here, contrary to what it often purports to do, the liberal international order has evidently failed to stand up for the powerless.
From Sea to Shining Sea: The Industry on Land
In addition to the challenges that modern sailors face at sea, the global maritime industry also creates significant problems for its land-based workers. When ships reach the end of their useful life, they must be disassembled and scrapped as part of a labor-intensive process. Instead of scrapping ships themselves and potentially running afoul of environmental or labor laws, many companies—including large industry leaders—evade responsibility by selling the ships to a third party. These third parties then register the vessels with countries that have lax environmental laws, such as Comoros and St. Kitts and Nevis, which virtually eliminates any legal obligation to scrap the ships in a humanitarian and environmentally responsible way. The actual scrapping then occurs in the South Asian countries of Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan, where the shore-based labor is inexpensive, and where safety conditions are nonexistent. This has resulted in countless injuries and deaths every year since the 1960s.
The poor working conditions in the vessel scrapyard sector mirrors those that sailors face daily. In both cases, the average worker is only a very small—and replaceable—part of the global maritime industry. To make matters worse, the people who rely on such workers seem to overwhelmingly disregard their wellbeing. This certainly appears to be true for the many governments that allow, and depend on, morally questionable employment practices for the billions of people who reap the benefits of globalization and cheap foreign imports, and even for the industry as a whole, including some of the world’s largest shippers.
The ineffectiveness of the international system in offering regulatory solutions to this crisis is best exemplified in the analogous context of the industry’s environmental impacts. For example, the scrapping sector places a heavy emphasis on recovering metal for resale. This means that hazardous materials, which are expensive to properly dispose of, are often intentionally overlooked during the scrapping process, creating untold ecological damage to many kilometers of the South Asian shoreline. Furthermore, the shipping industry alone is responsible for nearly 1 billion tons of carbon dioxide emissions each year, an amount equal to 2.5 percent of all global greenhouse gas emissions. Despite the sheer magnitude of these environmental concerns, the IMO has not taken concrete action to remedy the situation. The lack of action prompted the European Union to express a lack of confidence in the UN body by adding the maritime industry to its transport emissions cap-and-trade system starting 2021. This will gradually force the sector to reduce emissions, thus solving a problem that the IMO was powerless to address. The very fact that one key component of the Western-led liberal world order (the EU) is actively overriding another component (the UN) shows the inadequacy of existing mechanisms, even with an issue that is as clear as environmental damage. For more complicated issues, such as the plight of the maritime industry’s workers, the international response—if any—will only be slow and ineffective.
COVID-19: A Slow Turning Point?
Although current conditions are bleak, there is reason for optimism about the future of global shipping. The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the many flaws of the existing labor system: starting in March 2020, as the majority of countries closed their borders to non-citizens, sailors reaching the end of their work contracts were prevented from disembarking at ports and flying home. Meanwhile, rested sailors looking to join new ships were generally barred from traveling to another country to embark at a port, thus creating a labor imbalance: employed sailors reaching the end of their contracts could not return home, while unemployed sailors could not begin their contracts. Although this suspension of crew changes was meant as a temporary measure, the protracted spread of the pandemic has continued to make repatriation impossible. Forcing sailors to work well beyond the terms set in their original contracts has not only created widespread fatigue, but also issues with mental health and stress. These issues stem from one critical difference between land and sea based employment: while at sea, sailors literally cannot leave their workplace or take a complete break from work. Serving on a ship for an extended period of time can jeopardize sailors’ safety by forcing them to complete many repetitive tasks, while also creating social isolation because sailors are separated from their families. The recent lack of crew changes has only worsened these existing challenges.
Fortunately, the tide appears to be turning for these sailors. In addition to substantial press coverage about the issue of crew changes, the UN and its Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, have publicly urged governments around the world to designate sailors as essential workers during the course of the pandemic, which should enable them to return home or participate in crew rotations. More generally, COVID-19 has also increased public awareness about the importance of freight and a stable supply chain, especially in Western countries where the sight of empty shelves in stores has shocked and angered many consumers. Ideally, this awareness should lead to greater appreciation for the global maritime industry, and perhaps more public sympathy in case of labor actions such as strikes. Since sailors come from (and work in) areas around the world, they may find it difficult to coordinate labor action; therefore, a positive public perception of the workforce is crucial for achieving progress. Fortunately, COVID-19 seems to have affirmed this view.
Smooth Sailing: The Future of Maritime Work
Even more encouragingly, some shippers and countries have come to the realization that good economic performance does not need to be mutually exclusive with humanitarian labor practices. For instance, despite the important economic role of its ship scrapping industry, Bangladesh implemented a Ship Recycling Act in 2018 to transition to a more humanitarian set of regulations within five years, shortly after its neighbor India made a similar commitment. This shows that substantial change is possible when the industry reaches a critical mass of reform. When enough major players have committed to new policies, they create a new incentive structure for the industry that can solve the existing problem. Furthermore, the example of Bangladesh demonstrates the power of national governments to rectify unjust situations. As the shipping industry becomes more prominent in the public realm, other countries have taken similar concrete steps to remedy injustice. For example, Canada intervened to secure the repatriation of sailors stranded by the COVID-19 outbreak, in part by threatening to detain the ship while it was docked at a Canadian port. Again, this progress shows that action and mitigation is possible, albeit slow.
Even the IMO has made some progress in 2020 toward better regulating the maritime industry. It recently implemented strict emissions standards, requiring ships to either use fuel with substantially less sulfur content, or be equipped with scrubbing devices that reduce sulfur emissions. Although this change has been largely successful, it also reflects the glacial pace of progress in the shipping industry: the transition was negotiated in 2008, more than a decade before the implementation. Furthermore, the industry has been pessimistic about the prospect of becoming more environmentally sound: despite a relatively smooth transition, an industry-funded report recently warned that the actual cost of the fuel transition will be US$50 billion over the next four years, with the long-term goal of substantially reducing carbon emissions by 2050 set to cost US$1 trillion. Nonetheless, the very fact that there has been some change at the international institution level—however slow and expensive—is encouraging for the prospects of current and future workers in the global maritime industry.
Moving forward, as globalization progresses and makes the supply chain more important than ever, sailors will only play an increasingly valuable role. As long as the world continues to rely on the conveniences made possible by shipping, governments and individuals everywhere should start considering the adverse conditions that maritime workers face. Unless sailors and their land-based counterparts receive fair treatment and safer working conditions, the world’s countless cargo ships might not continue to enjoy the smooth sailing that they have experienced over the past few decades.