food / travel

Seeking New Labor Protection For All The World's Ship Workers

Fair trade doesn’t always mean fair transport, as international shipping leaves a whole category of workers unprotected.

Ukrainian mariners receive a global container ship at Yuzhny Port
Ukrainian mariners receive a global container ship at Yuzhny Port
Alastair Bland

SAN FRANCISCO — The world's mariners are protected by what may be the only minimum wage established across an entire global industry. Now, labor advocates are mobilizing to increase their pay and make consumers more aware of working conditions on the ships that move the goods they use every day.

More than 1.6 million seafarers work on international merchant ships around the world, according to the International Chamber of Shipping. Together, these laborers – mostly men from the Philippines, China, Indonesia, the Russian Federation and Ukraine – handle about 90% of global trade and also play a role in preventing marine pollution. But they're a largely invisible workforce.

Nautilus International, a mariners' labor union based in London, and the International Transport Workers' Federation are calling for a $50 per month seafarers' raise – an action to be discussed at a meeting of the United Nations International Labour Organization (ILO) in Geneva, Switzerland, scheduled originally for this summer but moved to November.

"When times were bad, the seafarers did their bit," said Debbie Cavaldoro, Nautilus International's head of strategy. "Now that things are better, it's time to not only pay them what they should have been receiving, but also an increase to move them forward."

According to ILO data, basic rates for seafarers have been increased every few years since 1970. However, the unions say the current recommended basic rate is pitifully low – just $614 per month – and that a raise is overdue. With many workers on ships clocking more than 90 hours per week of heavy lifting and other tedious, dangerous labor, by payday it can come to as little as $2–$3 an hour, they note. But the shipping industry is likely to resist a wage increase.

In many ways, seafarers are the guardians of the sea.

In an email exchange, Peter Hinchliffe, secretary general of the International Chamber of Shipping, said he could not comment on whether shipping employees deserved more money for their work. He said he and his organization "hope for a good dialogue" with seafarer representatives at the upcoming discussions.

In a statement posted to its website, however, the London-based organization, which represents 80 percent of the world's shipping fleet, questioned the rationale for the raise, arguing the economic challenges faced by the industry are "significant" and the minimum wage is "substantially higher" than that paid for comparative onshore work in developing nations. It also argued that seafarers are paid higher total wages once other mandatory payments, such as overtime or leave entitlements, are accounted for and end up with more than the ILO minimum.

In fact, the basic wage is just a recommendation. In an email, Brandt Wagner, an official with the ILO's Sectoral Policies Department, said, "There may be some countries that have transformed the ILO recommendation into a binding national requirement, or it may also be made binding through other collective bargaining agreements." However, his organization does not enforce such policies.

The second largest Italian cargo ferry being launched onto the Flensburg Fjord in Germany — Photo: Markus Scholz/DPA/ZUMA

While most shipowners may pay more or less than the recommended basic wage, there are some that may delay or avoid paying employees at all.

"You can still find seafarers on ships who have gone with no pay for six months, or eight months, or a year," Cavaldoro said. In some cases, she noted, unscrupulous captains abandon their employees at remote ports without paying them, leaving the castaways with little means of getting back home – a human rights issue referred to as seafarer abandonment.

Working on a cargo ship can also be a dangerous job. A study published in 2014 in Occupational Medicine found that mariners were 21 times more likely to die on the job than the general United Kingdom workforce. The most frequent type of fatal accident was being struck by heavy mooring ropes and other objects. Falls onboard, falls overboard and "asphyxiation in enclosed spaces' caused other deaths, according to the analysis.

"Fair trade"-stamped products were being moved on ships that employed workers in squalid conditions.​

But enforcing international laws and treaties in an industry that involves dozens of nations, more than 50,000 ships and the entire ocean is an inherently difficult task for authorities in coastal nations. Pinning responsibility for the well-being of seafarers on the right person, even with their vessel identified, is also not a simple task, Cavaldoro said.

These are all reasons why the group is now exploring options to create a "fair transport" stamp that would identify products that had been carried across oceans on ships that provide safe and sanitary – and fairly compensated – working conditions for seafarers.

Modeled after the "fair trade" label for the food industry, used to inform consumers of farmworker treatment, Nautilus International sees consumer education as a way to motivate change. In fact, the idea came about after Nautilus and another seafarers' advocate, the Swedish Union for Service and Communications Employees, or SEKO, discovered that "fair trade"-stamped products were being moved on ships that employed workers in squalid, unsanitary conditions.

"We believe that when people buy fair trade they're buying a product that's fair throughout the supply chain, but actually they aren't," Cavaldoro said. "The fair trade mark only guarantees the treatment of the farmers at one end. It doesn't look at the life cycle of that product."

A "fair transport" stamp may not appear on product labels for many years, she said, since creating one would be an extremely complex task. She hopes that higher wages, though, may be just months away.

Cavaldoro also argues there could be environmental benefits, if indirect, of paying seafarers higher wages and providing better working conditions. Underpaid or overworked workers, she said, may fail to take the extra steps that can prevent machinery breakdowns, system inefficiencies and various mishaps that can lead to oil or fuel spills.

"Seafarers care about the sea – it's their workplace," Cavaldoro said. "In the same way you don't want litter strewn around your office, they don't want polluted seas, they don't want ships that leak fuel. In many ways, they're the guardians of the sea, so value them and they'll give back to the world by doing the best job they can."

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The Food Truck, A Sign That The White And Wealthy Are Moving In

In San Diego, California, a researcher tracked how in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked dining options, when interesting eateries arrive the gentrification of white, affluent and college-educated people has begun.

Balboa Park Spring Fling Food Truck festival

San Diego Food Trucks via Facebook
Pascale Joassart-Marcelli

SAN DIEGO — Everybody, it seems, welcomes the arrival of new restaurants, cafés, food trucks and farmers markets.

What could be the downside of fresh veggies, homemade empanadas and a pop-up restaurant specializing in banh mis?

But when they appear in unexpected places – think inner-city areas populated by immigrants – they're often the first salvo in a broader effort to rebrand and remake the community. As a result, these neighborhoods can quickly become unaffordable and unrecognizable to longtime residents.

An appetite for gentrification

I live in San Diego, where I teach courses on urban and food geographies and conduct research on the relationship between food and ethnicity in urban contexts.

In recent years, I started to notice a pattern playing out in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked food options. More ethnic restaurants, street vendors, community gardens and farmers markets were cropping up. These, in turn, spurred growing numbers of white, affluent and college-educated people to venture into areas they had long avoided.

This observation inspired me to write a book, titled The $16 Taco, about how food – including what's seen as "ethnic," "authentic" or "alternative" – often serves as a spearhead for gentrification.

Take City Heights, a large multi-ethnic San Diego neighborhood where successive waves of refugees from places as far away as Vietnam and Somalia have resettled. In 2016, a dusty vacant lot on the busiest boulevard was converted into an outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44. There, food vendors gather in semi-permanent stalls to sell pupusas, lechon (roasted pig), single-sourced cold-brewed coffee, cupcakes and tamarind raspado (crushed ice) to neighborhood residents, along with tourists and visitors from other parts of the city.

Informal street vendors are casualties.

A public-private partnership called the City Heights Community Development Corporation, together with several nonprofits, launched the initiative to increase "access to healthy and culturally appropriate food" and serve as "a business incubator for local micro-entrepreneurs," including immigrants and refugees who live in the neighborhood.

On paper, this all sounds great.

But just a few blocks outside the gates, informal street vendors – who have long sold goods such as fruit, tamales and ice cream to residents who can't easily access supermarkets – now face heightened harassment. They've become causalities in a citywide crackdown on sidewalk vending spurred by complaints from business owners and residents in more affluent areas.

This isn't just happening in San Diego. The same tensions have been playing out in rapidly gentrifying areas like Los Angeles' Boyle Heights neighborhood, Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood, New York's Queens borough and East Austin, Texas.

In all of these places, because "ethnic," "authentic" and "exotic" foods are seen as cultural assets, they've become magnets for development.

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

A call for food justice

Cities and neighborhoods have long sought to attract educated and affluent residents – people whom sociologist Richard Florida dubbed "the creative class." The thinking goes that these newcomers will spend their dollars and presumably contribute to economic growth and job creation.

Food, it seems, has become the perfect lure.

It's uncontroversial and has broad appeal. It taps into the American Dream and appeals to the multicultural values of many educated, wealthy foodies. Small food businesses, with their relatively low cost of entry, have been a cornerstone of ethnic entrepreneurship in American cities. And initiatives like farmers markets and street fairs don't require much in the way of public investment; instead, they rely on entrepreneurs and community-based organizations to do the heavy lifting.

In City Heights, the Community Development Corporation hosted its first annual City Heights Street Food Festival in 2019 to "get people together around table and food stalls to celebrate another year of community building." Other recent events have included African Restaurant Week, Dia de Los Muertos, New Year Lunar Festival, Soul Food Fest and Brazilian Carnival, all of which rely on food and drink to attract visitors and support local businesses.

Meanwhile, initiatives such as the New Roots Community Farm and the City Heights Farmers' Market have been launched by nonprofits with philanthropic support in the name of "food justice," with the goal of reducing racial disparities in access to healthy food and empowering residents – projects that are particularly appealing to highly educated people who value diversity and democracy.

Upending an existing foodscape

In media coverage of changing foodscapes in low-income neighborhoods like City Heights, you'll rarely find any complaints.

San Diego Magazine's neighborhood guide for City Heights, for example, emphasizes its "claim to authentic international eats, along with live music venues, craft beer, coffee, and outdoor fun." It recommends several ethnic restaurants and warns readers not to be fooled by appearances.

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against the "urban food machine"

But that doesn't mean objections don't exist.

Many longtime residents and small-business owners – mostly people of color and immigrants – have, for decades, lived, worked and struggled to feed their families in these neighborhoods. To do so, they've run convenience stores, opened ethnic restaurants, sold food in parks and alleys and created spaces to grow their own food.

All represent strategies to meet community needs in a place mostly ignored by mainstream retailers.

So what happens when new competitors come to town?

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

Starting at a disadvantage

As I document in my book, these ethnic food businesses, because of a lack of financial and technical support, often struggle to compete with new enterprises that feature fresh façades, celebrity chefs, flashy marketing, bogus claims of authenticity and disproportionate media attention. Furthermore, following the arrival of more-affluent residents, existing ones find it increasingly difficult to stay.

My analysis of real estate ads for properties listed in City Heights and other gentrifying San Diego neighborhoods found that access to restaurants, cafés, farmers markets and outdoor dining is a common selling point. The listings I studied from 2019 often enticed potential buyers with lines like "shop at the local farmers' market," "join food truck festivals" and "participate in community food drives!"

San Diego Magazine's home buyer guide for the same year identified City Heights as an "up-and-coming neighborhood," attributing its appeal to its diverse population and eclectic "culinary landscape," including several restaurants and Fair@44.

When I see that City Heights' home prices rose 58% over the past three years, I'm not surprised.

Going up against the urban food machine

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against what I call the "urban food machine," a play on sociologist Harvey Molotch's "urban growth machine" – a term he coined more than 50 years ago to explain how cities were being shaped by a loose coalition of powerful elites who sought to profit off urban growth.

I argue that investors and developers use food as a tool for achieving the same ends.

When their work is done, what's left is a rather insipid and tasteless neighborhood, where foodscapes become more of a marketable mishmash of cultures than an ethnic enclave that's evolved organically to meet the needs of residents. The distinctions of time and place start to blur: An "ethnic food district" in San Diego looks no different than one in Chicago or Austin.

Meanwhile, the routines and rhythms of everyday life have changed so much that longtime residents no longer feel like they belong. Their stories and culture reduced to a selling point, they're forced to either recede to the shadows or leave altogether.

It's hard to see how that's a form of inclusion or empowerment.The Conversation


Pascale Joassart-Marcelli is a Professor of Geography and Director, Urban Studies and Food Studies Programs at San Diego State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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