You buy Fairtrade where possible, you ethically source your purchases, you factor air miles into your grocery choices. You’re doing your bit and yet, unknowingly, you are also propping up a world of work practices and business dealing that should have been consigned to Davy Jones’ locker around the same time that flogging and keelhauling were outlawed. That is to say, ages ago.
Rose George’s book isn’t about making readers feel guilty; God knows there’s enough proselytizing in daily life without heaping misery upon misery. But it does lift the lid on an industry for which we all depend and about which we know very little.
What’s clear is that a life on the ocean wave is a far remove from the upbeat poem and jaunty tune that made it the regimental quick march of the Corps of the Royal Marines.
A home on the rolling sea is as bleak as an Atlantic winter. It’s dangerous, it’s exhausting, it’s monotonous and it’s grim. It’s also a world away for most of us; out of sight out of mind. It’s a place where what happens at sea stays at sea.
Shipping is what the book’s subtitle calls: “The invisible industry that puts clothes on your back, gas in your car and food on your plate.” Its operators inhabit an environment where costs have to be cut to the bone for them to remain competitive and to stay afloat. A vessel that isn’t working quickly becomes a massive liability.
In the crazy world of shipping finances it’s cheaper for Scottish fish to be filleted in China than to do so domestically. It’s a world where a sweater can travel 3,000 miles for 2.5 cents and a can of beer for 1 cent. Mile for mile, the trucking part of a journey is more costly than the voyage.
It’s why unscrupulous parts of the industry have cannibalized their own best practices and retreated behind flags of convenience and shady shell companies. Recruiting agencies act as a buffer between employers and employees, industrial complaints get submerged in jurisdictional red tape and the mariner complainers find themselves blacklisted and unable to find a berth.
There are rules and laws aplenty to regulate the seas and oceans of the world but “the sea dissolves paper,” is how George puts it. “Who do you complain to when you are employed by a Manila manning agency on a ship owned by an American, flagged by Panama, managed by a Cypriot, in international waters?”
Seafarer fatalities are 10 times those of land-based occupations. Until 2012, international standards allowed seafarers to work a 98-hour week although that has now been reduced to 72. Fatigue, isolation and loneliness come with the job.
You might think part of the attraction of a seafarer’s life is the chance to see the world, though the reality is that you’re unlikely to get far beyond the dock gates when you reach terra firma. Shore leave is often denied (in contravention of maritime law) and the turnaround time of vessels is so short there’s little time to indulge in sightseeing and the imagined sailor past-times from a bygone age.
George’s prose steers a brisk course through the ebb and flow of maritime life – there are chapters on modern-day piracy, the role of seafaring chaplains, and even the effect on whale, dolphin and porpoise communications from the acoustic signature of vessels.
The book leaves in its wake a series of questions about the changes needed to regulate and enforce rules around the mare liberum. And it also engenders a healthy respect for merchantmen everywhere who live and work in peril on the sea.