By Rohey Samba
A commodity is a ‘reasonably homogenous good or material, bought and sold freely as an article of commerce, according to the BusinessDictonary.com. The Encyclopaedia Britannica on the other hand defines labour as, ‘any valuable service rendered by a human agent in the production of wealth, other than accumulating and providing capital or assuming the risks that is a normal part of business undertakings.’ The proposition that ‘labour is not a commodity’, was made by Dr. Ingram, an Irish economist, when he addressed the British Trade Union in 1880.
He said, “Labour is spoken of as if it were an independent entity, separable from the personality of a workman. It is treated as a commodity, like corn or cotton- the human agent, his needs, human nature, and human feelings being kept almost completely out of view…”
Samuel Gompers, American Trade Union leader, inserted the phrase in the Clayton Anti-Trust Act 1914.
Section 6, of the Act proclaimed ‘labour is not a commodity or an article of commerce’. He formed part of the delegation that drew the Treaty of Versailles, which established the ILO in 1919. The Declaration of Philadelphia, annexed to the ILO Constitution, was unanimously adopted in 1944. The principle ‘labour is not a commodity’ is declared as the first on which the organisation is based. It is underscored by the affirmation that, ‘all human beings, irrespective of race, creed or sex, have a right to pursue both their material well-being and their spiritual development in conditions of freedom and dignity, of economic security and equal opportunity.’
In contemporary times, labour is placed in a complex setting called globalization. According to Marxist theory, globalization is the process by which ‘capital by its nature drives beyond every spatial barrier (and) conquer(s) the earth for its market. The Treaty of Rome that established the EEC in 1957, specified labour as one of factors of free movement, like goods, capital and services.
Labour is not a commodity gives allusion to many interpretations. It means among other things that the ‘pricing of labour could not be left solely to the operation of the labour market.’ In a press release on the 95th International Labour Convention, the Director General of the International Labour Organisation Somavia said, ‘There is a growing feeling that the dignity of work has been devalued; that it is seen by prevailing economic thinking as simply a factor of production-a commodity – forgetting the individual, family, community and nation,’ (ILO, 2006).
Globalisation has shaped possibilities for the transfer of technology as well as capital across borders the world over. It has also increased labour mobility and with it exploitation and deregulation. In effect, the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions declared that globalization posed ‘the greatest challenge for unions in the 21st Century’.
In recent times, the ‘race to the bottom’, where the highly versatile capital of the global marketplace seeks cheap labour that accepts minimum standards and wages to sustain economic ventures is common. The effect is more evident in the informal sectors such as agriculture, construction, semi-skilled and unskilled manufacturing, domestic services etc.; but cuts across formal sectors such as migrant labour, child labour and so forth. While capital may treat labour as an undifferentiated commodity, labour by nature is distinct.
The overwhelming question remains; is labour a commodity- True or False?
To answer this question, I will examine the underlying principle of the terms; labour is not a commodity, in its context and in the light of its object and purpose. Considering the broadness of the topic and for the purpose of this commentary, I would narrow the discussion to tackle labour in the context of globalisation with regards the seafaring industry under the caption of decent work for seafarers. Why? Because this is the industry I know more than any other, having commenced my career as a trainee sea pilot more than fifteen years ago with the Gambia Ports Authority. With the help of providence and as a freelance writer, I would not do justice without writing about the industry I am most passionate about.
To begin with, seafarers’ rights as workers are unlike other workers for they cannot leave the workplace after a day’s work, because they live and work on board the ship. An UNCTAD report in 2001 revealed a two-fold increase in world seaborne trade since 1970. In shipping, the terms ‘competitive shipping’ as used in commercial parlance is the leaning of ship owners with the promulgation of Open Registers, otherwise called Flags of Convenience-FOCs, following the 1970s oil crisis which saw excess tonnage and falling freight rates. Technological advancement, but also the strictures of profitability have encouraged reduced manning and extended working hours for seafarers who are increasingly mixed crew from lower waged countries.
A study by the Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) established ‘that non-compliance with IMO convention safety standards can give a ship operator a 15-16 per cent advantage over operators whose ships do comply. The incentive to contribute to the agenda of decent work for seafarers is thus thwarted by forces that are mainly antithetical to the agenda of providing decent, well-paid work in safe and secure environments.
In examining labour in the light of the global dimensions of the seafaring industry, the premise is simple: I allude to the unfair employment practises, exploitation and discrimination of seafarers especially from developing countries like ours. The discussion inclines to the increasing trend of seafarer abandonment, denial of shore leave, criminalization, exploitation by manning agents of seafarers etc. and concludes with the analysis of the Declaration of Philadelphia in light of the facts in hand.
To begin with, shipping is one of the most globalized industries in as much as components of the sector comprising vessels, insurance, registration, surveys, inspections, audits as well as seafarers are outsourced globally. The global dimensions of the industry demonstrate the dynamics between States, capital and labour.
The global labour market is a reality for most of the world’s seafarers engaged in international trade. Globalization has shaped the new world order marked by States’ economic interdependence and the migration of labour. This has paradoxical effects on the conditions of seafarer’s employment. On the one hand, it has increased seafarers employment especially in developing countries. But, it has also presented many challenges to their labour rights.
In a broad sense, the rights of seafarers as workers include their right to fair wages and benefits for their services, safe and healthy living and working conditions etc. Several abuses to these rights are reported in contravention of ILO’s decent work standards. In 2000-2001, 44% of ships detained by Tokyo MOU, 42% by Paris MOU and similar percentage by AMSA were associated with seafarers safety- ‘crew accommodation, food and catering, lifesaving appliances, fire safety measures, SOLAS and MARPOL related operational deficiencies and ISM related deficiencies’.
Of all the relevant instruments covered within the Abuja MOU Port State Control regime, of which The Gambia is part, non-compliance with SOLAS still ranks the highest with 33.7% of all deficiencies recorded. Safety of navigation and fire safety account for 40 each (6.57%); MARPOL 35 (5.75%); life-saving appliances 37 (6.08%); and MLC 2006, 31 (5.1%). The majority of SOLAS deficiencies in 2014 were in the areas of safety of navigation, followed by fire safety measures, life-saving appliances, emergency system and radio communications respectively, which together constitute 25.1 per cent of the total deficiencies.
Decent work according to the ILO is vital for ‘fair globalization’. It defines the 20th Century notion of the English idiom ‘quality of life’, which is the sum total of values, material and non-material, attained by a worker through his life as a wage earner. The ILO’s Decent Work Agenda rests on the premise of work as a source of personal dignity, family stability and peace in the community among others. It dwells on the realization of ‘strategic objectives’, namely employment, social protection, social dialogue and rights at work.
Traditionally, ships were crewed, owned and flagged locally, even though they were operated internationally. Following a sea career, a mariner would move ashore to assume a career as a sea pilot or a harbour master. A seafarer going to sea in the 1970s was assured of fair treatment, adequate wages and tenure of employment among other things. Following the oil crisis of the 1970s, there were surplus ships that led to the frantic drive to cut costs. Ship owners responded by registering their ships with Open Registries so as to reduce costs and maintain competitiveness, while escaping from the strict shipping unions of their national registries. For example, US ships owners’ resorted to using the Liberian registry to avoid the provisions of the Jones Act. The changes created a global market for the supply of seafarers with the major determinant being the price of labour.
In 1995, for instance, Japanese Able-Seamen received US $ 9349, which is 41 times more than a Bangladeshi Abled-Seaman, who received US $227. This cost imperative has led many ship operators to seek ‘commercial advantage by evading international safety regulations and labour standards, according to the International Commission on Shipping. The nationality link has been overshadowed by the genuine link concept of UNCLOS Article 91; which definition remains discretionary among major maritime States.
Why seafarers go to sea?
The seafaring profession is synonymous with hardship and danger. The environment involves noise, vibration, heat etc. Seafaring is one of the most hazardous occupations. Mr. Crescensio M. Siddayao, ex-head of the National Seamen Board of the Philippines summed up the seafaring employment when he said:
‘Seafarers’ employment is unique in the sense that employment abroad ocean going ships inevitably subject the workers to rigorous isolation and confinement. The ship is not only a place of work for the seafarer, but also a home. He lives a regimented life throughout the employment period-at work or off duty. He is all times subject to the command or whims of the master of the ship. Also, he is at the mercy of the perils and dangers of the high seas.’
In her study, partial to UK seafarers, Michelle Thomas relates, ‘When asked about the benefits of a seafaring career, both the seafarers and their partners most commonly mentioned ‘money’ as attraction of the work.’ The financial incentive however comes at a cost, depending on what side of the globe one is coming from.
‘Owing to seagoing labour surplus in countries with national fleets, seafarers have had to accept lower wages, longer working hours, shorter holidays and leave at less frequent intervals, simply to keep their jobs’, according to Hafez, in his book Seafarers Social Life and its effects on maritime safety, with respect to Egyptian seafarers, published in the World Maritime University.
As a result of this phenomenon, many seafarers become ‘economic hostages’ to a life at sea.
To be continued…