Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Two Seafarers Tales

Modern Piracy has really lost the romanticism

Avast ye landlubbers  listen to an old sea dogs tales, and learn yerself some respect for the mistress of the deep blue, YARRRR!

Ok I'll stop, but I do have a couple of stories about modern day sea faring and for some reason both involve Banana boats. As in ships that transport banana's not those yellow inflatable things you ride on.

 First up is a cartoon made in 1998 by the International Transport Federation (ITF) that's the international association for Transport Unions. Lets take a look shall we?

Well that was interesting, as a piece of animation I think it was pretty well done, certainly it matched the quality of the cartoons I watched in 1998 as a kid. As a piece of propaganda (inform through art) though its a bit spotty. It does a very good job of showing the modern Seaman's life at its very worst. As a man grown up between Immingham and Grimsby docks and coming from a Navy family I've heard all of those practices being in use just not all at the same time. Still quite a few of them are quite devious, if your wondering about the buying of a flag at the start, its a bit complicated. Basically flying a nations flag extends its protections to the vessel, but the flag doesn't necessarily have to correspond to nationality of the crew, the company that owns it, or even the sea's it operates in. Its called flag of convenience, officially speaking you are supposed to be bound to the laws of the nation the ship sails under. It is basically a form of legalised corruption, technically speaking the practice is illegal in most countries but its hard to police as it would require a full search of the vessel and its shipping records to prove. The only real draw back from the point of view of the ships owner is if you fly the flag of a Nation that's hostile to the nation whose waters your using. A common tactic in economic disputes is to deny access or seize ships with an hostile nations flag.

It's just that most dockworkers and Seaman are probably all familiar with those practices so this is a case of telling them something they already know, and in a patronising way. Though it is good to see that the resolution to the conflict did acknowledge the darker side of port labour relations. Since ports are often separated from settlements and most of the people there are foreigners with no ties to the nearby community it is easier to get away with illegal acts of every kind due to lack of attention, and that includes violent strikebreaking.  I was a little worried that the cartoon would just have the Union organiser Seagull (that's a weird combination) just solve everything by making a speech and having the boss Shark and/or the hiring agent rat see the light. That kind of thinking isn't helpful.

However if used to educate children or very new crew and dockers of what to expect it and how exploitation works in practice, I think cartoons like this could be very helpful. When I was "taught" about exploitation and ethics it was pretty poor. It was about third world labour, unfortunately the curriculum was saddled with a need to draw a middle ground because apparently condemning child labour and sweatshops is to controversial. At least here we have an explanation of the problem, a demonstration of why it is in fact a problem and a solution offered.

Anyway next up is an autobiography of an Irish sailors experiences at Sea as part of an international crew (actually most ships nowadays are multinational) shipping Banana's from South America to Europe. It mainly concerns the attitudes of the crew, the retention of the old Hierarchy of ranks and some of the abuses common in shipping as a whole.

High seas adventures: ocean crossings in search of the revolutionary Atlantic

I had been at sea for only two months, and already I was sick of the sailor’s life to the bottom of my heart. Not the seaman’s life as such, but the seafaring environment, the regimen on board the banana boats, the slave-like labor at the ports, and the immorality of the global banana trade that is pure naked exploitation, a pillaging of the South. My daytime activities painting or chipping rust and nighttime shift on watch are populated by fantastical notions of violent mutiny, hoisting the black flag, and setting sail with my fellow newly initiated pirate crew.

Such musings fall on absolutely uninterested ears. As we share a few beers in his cabin, I ask one of the Filipino deck hands, the most disgruntled of the lot, why, if life on the ship was so fucking miserable, didn’t the crew organize to change things. “You know,” I suggested jokingly, “like an old-school mutiny!”

Manuel, in his early twenties like me, laughed so hard that beer foam came out his nostrils. “Why would any of us think such a thing!? In 254 days I will be finished all this hell and I will return to Manila, buy my land, and farm with my wife and children. For us Filipinos this is the best job possible. Two years’ labor at sea and then we are set up almost for life. There are many who would do anything for this job.” He changes the subject, pressing a photo of a young woman into my hand. “She’s pretty, isn’t she? That’s my sister. You could marry her, take her with you to Europe. She’s a good cook, tidy.”
I’m not making any progress here at all, so I take my leave.

The rest of the text is well worth a read, also available as a PDF.


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