Keeping watch at sunset from the bridge

Keeping watch at sunset from the bridge

The 3rd mate’s seafaring career began with a desire for basketball shoes. “When I was really young, I saw these guys coming home – seamen from my province – and they looked really amazing,” he shares one afternoon as we stare across the ocean from the bridge, where he is on watchkeeping duty for 8 hours a day. “They had these fancy dresses, basketball shoes… at that time I really liked basketball, so when I saw those brand new shoes, I said, ‘ok, I want that too’. The other men in my town, they were not the same. Even if they had a higher degree of education, they didn’t have those things the seaman were having. So I thought, why study those courses the other guys are studying when I can go with being a seaman?”

Not that his family, in particular two uncles who were seamen, approved: it would be a very hard job, they warned him, and very painful – especially if you have a family. One cousin had died on board a vessel that had sunk over the Atlantic. But the 3rd mate does what he sets his mind to, and so on he went to a Bachelor of Science in Marine Transportation – the college degree a majority of the crew holds.

“And in reality?” I venture, “Is it what you imagined?” The answer is an unequivocal no. “If I had a chance to go back, I would not be here,” he says. “Life on the sea, it’s very different from what I fancied. The stories from previous generations I’ve heard are all quite interesting: no hardships, everything’s ok. But when I got here, I found that everything is saturated. The six months on board… it’s six months of hell. I am constantly missing my loved ones. When I go home, the three months of vacation are even not completely vacations for me.”

This is a story I’ve heard multiple iterations of in the past weeks. While swabbing the deck, sitting in the recreation room playing poker, or cutting up rags in the machine workshop, these men have shared the stories of how they came to be seamen. There is the imagined life, and there is the devastating reality. Ask almost anyone if they enjoy their job, and they will tell you no. The ones who say yes, when pushed for a reason, will explain: “it’s because of the pay.” There is no intrinsic attraction to a life at sea; only to what it makes possible: AB Miguel has a bedridden mother he provides for in addition to his wife and two kids. AB Mendoza keeps requesting to extend his contract so that he can save up for his daughter, who is graduating in March. The fitter Ocampo has a machine shop in Manila that went out of business, consigning him to nine years on the ocean to provide for his family. “I’m not a seaman!” Ocampo exclaims. “This is not where I’m supposed to be.”

Homesickness is “always there,” manifesting itself in picture collages of their families on cabin walls and email communications twice a day. At night, the crew gathers in their recreation room, where they smoke cigarettes, play poker with makeshift rubber chips, and watch re-runs of Filipino TV soaps and variety shows, which they get on $1 DVDs from the seaman’s mission in ports. On Sundays, a warring basketball game is played between the engine and deck crew on a half court in the lower aft of the ship, the crew yelling when misdirected throws threaten to bounce the ball into the open sea. Almost all recreational activities carry a scent of home. The longing is so acute that the ship is often characterized as a floating prison – “Traveling Alcatraz,” as the oiler Eddie puts it. They will tell you that walking up the gangway with their baggage at the start of their contract is the heaviest feeling, and going down when the six months are over is the most joyful. “54 steps to freedom,” says Vern as we scrub rust off the deck’s floor on one quiet day at sea, “and 54 steps to prison.”

A sunday afternoon basketball game on the lower deck

A Sunday afternoon basketball game on the lower deck

But even when the crew is off the ship during precious vacation months, the time is not theirs alone. The seafaring market is competitive and contingent, built on short-term 6-month contracts that may or may not be renewed by the crewing company, depending on performance reviews. To stay afloat, most seamen have to attend trainings to renew their various certificates or enroll in courses to gain new skills – watchkeeping, quarter mastering, medical training – the fees for which must come out of their own pocket. “After three months, your money runs out,” Montez says, “and you either have to go into debt or go back on the ship. On board, longing to be home. At home, cannot enjoy.” And although almost every Filipino crew on the Ever Cthulhu has a maritime degree which qualifies them to become an officer, sitting for the board exams requires costly prep courses and time away from home. Some give up and remain ABs or Bosuns for life, preferring to spend the little time home with their children. The younger crewmembers, still flush with ambition, tell me that they are saving money for their prep courses. The youngest of the crew, wiper Navarro tells me he sees it as an ‘investment’: “After a college degree, wiping up oil is not really the idea of what you signed up for. Maybe that’s why we all want to become officers.”

This innocent desire – what many may think of as ‘career advancement’ – has a darker side. Within the year, the captain and all the European officers on this ship will be out of a job. The company that manages the Ever Cthulhu, German-based shippers NSB Reedereiare to exit the German flag by 2017. NSB will move their remaining 38 German flagged ships to flags of convenience, and with that, will gradually lay off their 486 employees at sea – largely German and European officers, ship mechanics, and engineers. On sea, no matter whether across the Pacific or at port, ships are governed under the nation whose flag they fly – making vessels into, as Rose George has put it, “floating chunk[s] of the nation state.” But “flags of convenience,” a label coined by the International Transport Federation in 1948, allow these floating chunks to slip in and out of different sovereign regulations, solving the ‘problem’ of having to adhere to the costly standards of democratic and worker rights in the global north. Flags of convenience designate open registries that allow companies based in one nation to flag their ships ‘out’ to countries with lower taxes, crew salary standards, and labor regulations.

Today, 68 percent of ships fly a flag that does not belong to the country of their owner’s origin or residence – and the requirements of establishing a “genuine link” between flag nation and shipping company (a requirement of the UN Law of the Sea) are not more than sustaining an office and a mailbox in a distant land such as Liberia, Monrovia, or Panama- often countries torn apart by colonial expropriation. NSB, currently the largest operator of German-flagged vessels, will by the end of 2017 restock its depleted European officer pool with Filipinos, who command half the European wage.

For the past decades, Filipino seafarers have been in high demand – constituting almost 40% of all crews worldwide – because they speak good English and come cheap. “They know the money they pay us is not enough for what we do,” the 2nd mate tells me as he plots a navigational path on a map, “but they also know that we accept it because in the Philippines, our salaries are better than most of our countrymen.” The Filipinos on the ship have accordingly painted a picture of their cities and towns choked with maritime institutes and training centers, offering the promise of high salaries and the thrill of seafaring life. Men line up for days at a time at crewing booths hoping to get a job, playing the waiting game, and taking one entrance exam after the other in the hopes of getting selected. The ones who’ve made it on the ship count themselves lucky.

But today, even Filipino labor has come under threat: NSB has established maritime schools in Sri Lanka and Shanghai where labor comes even cheaper, and other companies have been following suit. Like all other industries, shipping moves on roller skates around the world, seeking lower and lower capital outlays as they experiment with bringing circulation time as close to zero as possible. Quite different from other attempted spatial fixes for crises of profitability, however, the geographical relocation of maritime labor pools does not require heavy fixed capital outlays from investment in costly and immobile infrastructure and machinery. Schools and training centers can be set up (and moved) at relatively small costs, with large payoffs in the availability of cheap maritime labor they churn out.

Growing the pool of available low-wage, contingent workers who “should be grateful for what the industry gives them” proves the most feasible and cost-effective way to solve “the labor problem.” The captain tells me that the attempted solution used to be reducing the workforce by bringing crew numbers down as much as possible.  He remembers that in the 1980s, one study pioneered by a Japanese company had experimented with cutting personnel on a ship from 26 crewmembers to 9. “Nine! You imagine!” The captain laughs. “This was right around the time of computerization and automation,” he explains, “and they wanted to see what was possible in terms of reducing the number of workers. So they experimented several times with 9 crew to see whether it was possible.” Of course, the captain goes on, the study soon found that these workers were becoming very lonely. “Maybe you are eating in the mess room all by yourself, with nobody to talk to,” he opines. With 9 crew members, each worker had longer hours with no substitutes to keep watch on deck and inadequate rest time – concentration levels were slipping into downward spiral, and with it, the morale of the workers.

“So do you know what they did?” The captain asks. I guess: they increased the crew sizes, they provided more recreational activities, they paid them better wages – and am wrong on all accounts. With a booming, belly-deep laugh, the captain delivers the punchline: “Their solution was: to provide the workers with silverware. Silverware! You imagine! Somehow, they were thinking that feeling fancy would conquer the problem of loneliness.”

The crew mess room. Down the hall, with tables of white linens, is the officer mess – a division that effectively translates into Filipinos and Europeans dining separately.

The crew mess room. Down the hall, with tables of white linens, is the officer mess – a division that effectively translates into Filipinos and Europeans dining separately.

Simultaneously comical and incredibly depressing, the image of workers sitting alone in mess rooms, surrounded by fancy cutlery but no companions conjures the image of what anthropologist Marc Augé has called the “non-place”: a “dense network of means of transport which are also inhabited spaces” where no organic social life is possible, “a world thus surrendered to solitary individuality, to the fleeting, the temporary and the ephemeral.

A disclaimer before I proceed: The idea of the non-place, often invoked in writing about infrastructures of transport, provides a helpful analytical framework. But it also betrays the texture of life on the container ship – a place of transit, to be sure, but unlike other spaces of transit, acts both as workplace and living quarters to sailors who spend up to seven months at a time on board. As I write this, I feel I am betraying the richness and warmth of the people on the Ever Cthulhu. Most know the exact number of days they have been here, and how many are left to home – but in making do with life on board, have also learned how to treat a continuous cycle of new friends as family. There is ‘Papa’ Adem, the oldest crew member at 49, who doles out blazing nuggets of widsom and wears only pink t-shirts, a fashion choice I assume is deliberate until he tells me everything was stained after he threw a red handkerchief into his mostly white laundry. There is Miguel, the joker, one of the few ABs who does not hold a maritime degree, who worked his way up the food chain by once staying on a ship for a continuous 2-year stretch, who enjoys puns, card tricks, and scanning the ocean for dolphins. And there is Jonathan, one of the youngest engine crew, simultaneously irreverent and kind, who has an 8-month old baby boy at home and has to sneak a cry in the bathroom when I insensitively ask how difficult it is to be away from his newborn.

In non-places, no one can hear you cry. Characterized by their transitory nature and corresponding social emptiness, non-places always gesture to a reality or destination somewhere else. Much of the literature on logistics take a similar tack, suggesting that logistics, as an industry invested in smoothing out the world’s surface, “pulverizes” and flattens space to facilitate (to the extent it is possible) the ceaseless circulation of money, commodities, and bodies. Sohn-Rethel describes this abstraction* as such:

Time and space rendered abstract under the impact of commodity exchange are marked by homogeneity, continuity and emptiness of all natural and material content, visible or invisible (e.g. air). The exchange abstraction excludes every thing that makes up history, human and even natural history. The entire empirical reality of facts, events and description by which one moment and locality of time and space is distinguished from one another is wiped out.

The Atlantic slave trade – which Stefano Harney and Fred Moten link to the rise of logistics – provides the most hellish example of this: slaves, treated as indistinguishable from other commodities such as spices or gold, were not only loaded onto ships and carried across oceans to the New World. As Paul Gilroy traces for us, during stormy weather, it was also regular practice to toss slaves off the ship into the churning waters below as an effort to shed weight, well before captains would be willing to relinquish their cargo — the sea a liquid graveyard for black bodies regarded less valuable than cotton or tea.

Flattening produces all objects – even people – as fungible commodities. In a recent article, Cuppini, Frapporti and Pirone have argued  that this subjectivation of people as slaves bears striking similarities to the contemporary logistical mode, which “works to transform the logistics laborer into something like a drudge, and android, a working machine.”  But if logistics flattens bodies, objects, and affects, we must also remember that, as Lisa Lowe argues, “capital has maximized its profits not by rendering labor ‘abstract’ but precisely through the social production of ‘difference’… marked by race, nation, geographical origin, and gender” (emphasis mine). Markers of identity otherwise regarded as non-economic are, in other words, essential to the structure of capitalism rather than exogenous to it.

Even as struggles along supply chains are unfolding around the world, it has become clear while on the Ever Cthulhu that workers do not necessarily identify primarily as workers: that is, the social fields which structure the imaginations of seamen are a complex interweaving of race, ethnicity, nationality, gender, and so forth – not necessarily structured around the category of abstract labor. On the ship, this plays out in ways that often align the seaman’s markers of identity with their ability to perform the job well. Take the 3rd mate’s explanation of why Filipino seamen are a popular choice in the industry:

I’ve heard that most companies are hiring Filipino ratings because they work more efficiently. It’s usually European officers, Filipino crew, but I heard that one vessel experimented with only Europeans, no Filipinos. The German captain was tasked to observe and compare. And by the end, the captain wrote that it’s better to have all Filipino ratings, because when you tell them to do things, they will get things done. For Europeans, if coffee break is half an hour, they will leave at 0950 and come back to work at 1040. We Filipinos, no. We stop working at 1000 and are back at work by 1030.

When I ask why this “hardworking ability” seems to be the case, the 3rd mate speculates: “Because most Filipino seamen come from middle or lower-middle class. We’re used to the mentality that we are working hard for our job.” Other markers of identity are also frequently cited as reasons for the Filipino seaman’s economic performance. In the middle of five hours of mopping a filthy deck one day (more exhausting that one might think!), Miguel surveys the work I’ve done and says, “This job is not for a woman. I think only men can stand how difficult this job is. Being willing to be away from family, the long hours, the strength…” He trails off. Part of me, of course, is pissed at this masculinist conception of physical and emotional hardiness. But I also see in their rationalizations a key feature of what Anna Tsing has termed “superexploitation”: Exploitation that depends on so-called noneconomic factors such as gender, race, ethnicity, nationality, religion, sexuality, age, and citizenship status…exploitation greater than might be expected from general economic principles.”

Tsing explains that as supply chains “tap and vitalize performances of noneconomic features of identity,” labor is “recruited and motivated by these performances”:

Workers establish their economic performance through performances of the very factors that establish their superexploitation: gender, race, ethnicity, and so forth… A day laborer must perform brawn and availability; a prostitute must perform sexual charm. These performances bring them contracts and make it difficult for them to negotiate the wage outside niches for gender, sexuality, and race…Diversity, with all its promise and perils, enters the structure of supply chain capitalism through this mechanism.

On their side, the European officers on the ship, having worked between 12 and 31 years for a company that will soon abandon them, frequently cite cultural differences as the reason for better European work performance and frustrated managerial expectations. From their perspective, a majority of Filipinos do not display initiative, and complete their work only just-so, never extending themselves beyond what they are asked to do. “You have to have some basic satisfaction from your job,” the captain thinks, “but the Filipinos, they just treat it as pure work.” The Filipinos will unapologetically agree: “It’s just a job,” they have often said. “Just do what the officers tell you. Mind your own business.” One side is resigned to the fact that they will be replaced by the others who provide a cheaper alternative, but maintain that they are trained better and care more. The other underscores the fact that the industry relies on the uneven distribution of waged work to pay them less, keep them on ships longer, withhold long-term contracts —  and that their willingness to do this alone makes them valuable. None of this maps onto simple ways to build worker power in response to the antagonism of capital. Rather, the messy, overlapping, problematic ways in which the seamen mobilize “cultural divides” and categories of nationality and gender points to what Tsing cites as “the inability of workers to negotiate the wage in the manner imagined in much of both Marxist and neo-classical economics: that is, as abstract ‘labor,’ without the obstacles of these ‘cultural’ factors.”

In a climate where seafarers are acutely aware that they can be passed over for lower-waged labor at any time, many seafarers see the most hopeful future for themselves not as labor, but often as potentially rich entrepreneurs. It is not into seafaring that they have poured their dreams and aims. The electrician, fitter, and many others have told me that they are saving a portion of their wages every month to invest, hoping to be able to quit the seafaring life and start a small business at home. “A small farm,” Montez imagines. “Maybe a video game arcade” thinks another. “Put it back into my machine shop,” says the fitter.

In a few days, time, six members of the crew will end their contracts in Hong Kong and return home. The accommodations are abuzz with anticipation, suitcases are packed, and the seamen who will be returning home have a faraway look in their eyes, already somewhere else. Last night, the sailors threw a farewell party for their departing mates, and the karaoke songs belted in the recreation room were almost entirely of the love ballad variety: Scorpion, Michael Learns to Rock, Boyz II Men – set to background images of well-loved Filipino destinations and scenery. Montez leaned over once, in the middle of Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide”. “That’s what I tell my wife all the time,” he said. “‘I built my life around you.’ Really, it’s the truth. Because all of this, all this time away, is for her, and for my family. One day, I will save enough so that they can live comfortably and I don’t have to be away.” Such desires may appear to be a far cry away from the alluring, powerful vision of worker struggles surging along and forcefully disrupting the supply chain, but they form a different fabric of desire nevertheless – one which requires us to listen, pause, and pay attention before folding radically uneven conditions into a uniform demand for universal workers’ rights.

*Thanks to Vidar Thorsteinsson, who pointed this passage out to me in his comment on a previous dispatch.