Working on ships, travelling by ship

Migrants who sell sex are not the only migrants treated as victims needing to be saved, though they get most of the attention. A few years ago I went to a Seamen’s Mission in Liverpool and talked with people who visit workers on freighters in dock there. They arranged for me to go aboard a couple of ships and talk to seafarers from the Philippines.

Forced or coerced conscription used to be a common way to get labourers for merchant ships – to be shanghaied was to be abducted to work on ships. Great numbers of bodies were needed to keep trading ships going in the 19th century. The British Royal Navy used impressment to man its ships. The long history of these injustices flavour strongly how present-day mission workers talk about their duties, which also rely on principles stated in the ILO’s Seafarers Welfare Convention and related instruments.

At the time I talked to these seamen, I was thinking a lot about parties held aboard ships that weigh anchor some distance from Latin American ports. Because seafarers will not easily get visas to go ashore, it’s common for ways of taking ‘leave’ or recreation to be brought to them on board. I had visited the Caribbean coast of Colombia, Nicaragua and Costa Rica, meeting people who make money when ships arrive and seamen want to party. Someone on the ship rings up someone on shore who puts out the call for those interested to meet at a certain small boat that will sail out to the side of the freighter. Climbing up the precarious rope ladder above the sea onto the deck figures among talents necessary. Parties last days, risks are taken, fun is had by some, money is paid to some, and sometimes these groups overlap. A lot of it is about drink, drugs, food and music. A lot of the folks climbing up those scary ladders are poor.

Not so long ago, parties aboard ships in Liverpool docks were still common. The seamen I spoke with in Liverpool said that they are rare there now, although still the norm in many countries. I asked the men about the mission workers’ story of how terrible seafarers’ lives are, separated from their ‘families’ for nine months at a time, unable to maintain ‘normal relationships’. They smiled and replied that nine months at sea and three at home with families is conventional for merchant seamen. This is their profession and they are used to it and don’t feel themselves to be victims.

Blogs being what they are, I am now free to free-associate to another use of ships and sailing and migrating. This time, researchers quote undocumented migrants who have travelled by ship to get to the US. They were asking the question because conditions are awful on ships carrying such cargo, and accidents, not to mention disasters, are not uncommon. A large number of those undertaking these trips come from Fujian, in the south of China.

There is a risk of not being able to return from every fishing trip. But how can you catch fish without going to the sea? For me, going to America is just like another fishing trip. – Mr Chen, a Fujian fisherman

I am from Changle, we are sons of the sea. Our life depends on the sea for generations . . . My wife does not worry about me when I go on a fishing trip for days because she knows I am going to be ok. – Fujian fisherman

The researchers think that belonging to a fishing culture makes Fujianese migrants willing and able to endure ‘conditions that would perhaps be unbearable for most non-Fujianese’.

This kind of research often departs from the feeling that migrants take too many risks and therefore it is not reasonable to believe they leave home willingly. I’ve had a lot to say about this kind of victimising assumption, and the idea that poorer people can never be cosmopolitan. The problem arises when what people say they are doing and how they feel about it is left out, or disregarded, by commentators.

Quotations are from ‘Fujian to New York: Understanding the New Chinese Immigration,’ by Zai Liang and Wenzhen Ye, published in Global Human Smuggling, Kyle and Koslowski, editors, Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 2001.

2 thoughts on “Working on ships, travelling by ship

  1. pfjobrien

    Using the resources available to you in order to improve your economic circumstance is human nature. It may manifest itself differently amongst men and women, as one would expect, but condemning the choice for women who use sex reeks of the primitive biological instinct to preserve the tribe’s genetic integrity and its modern manifestation: sexual puritanism.


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