Friday, 13 December 2013

Sitting on the Dock of the Bay

(This is a guest article)

That millions of workers in Asia on minimal wages produce a huge amount of consumer goods for the West is such a well-established and undisputed fact that it does not require much further comment. These goods are often so cheap that their price astonishes us. Of course, once we consider the economics of the lives of the people who produce these goods, there is no mystery in this. Yet we rarely ponder such issues for long, because the inevitable conclusion can only be that living standards in the West are supported by the toil and sweat of millions of others.
But the systematic exploitation of what used to be called the ‘Third World’ - and is now fast becoming the First World in terms of industrial organisation and manufacturing competence - is not restricted to production. Every aspect of this production and trade is parasitical and hugely exploitative. Consider, for example, maritime shipping - the main way these goods get from the hands of distant toiling masses into the hands of consumers in the rich countries.
Almost all goods produced in Asia for the West are transported in large container ships. Airfreight accounts for less than 7% of the total. Despite the West’s clear technical superiority, not a single developed western nation builds container ships. They are all built in Asia, mainly in South Korea. So, it is not only the goods, but also the ships they travel in that are produced in Asia. What little shipbuilding of any kind remains in the West survives only because of the most stringent protective barriers or due to social policy protecting employment (the disparity in wages is so great that a global free market in shipbuilding would wipe out what is left of this protected industry).
The exploitative and parasitical nature of Western consumption even determines the design of container ships because of the unequal loading on the forward and return journeys. Ships stacked up with containers on the outward East-West journey can be the equivalent of a 10-storey building above the water line. A ship is stable when a proportion of it is below the water line, but a ship built to handle such huge capacities would be unstable in rough seas when unladen. Because we give Asia practically no goods in return, container ships have to return empty. So, to maintain stability the ships have to be built with huge ballast tanks to take on seawater. The ships are designed on the assumption that the West takes but does not give and that this will continue to be the case throughout the working life of the vessel!
A large container ship has a crew of around 30. The captain is almost always a very-well-paid European. The crew is invariably staffed by ratings from extremely poor countries that command extremely poor wages (mostly from the Philippines, Bangladesh and Malaysia). Were merchant seamen paid decent wages these would be reflected in a higher price for the goods transported.
Considering that 80% of world trade is from ‘East to West’, and that all container ships are built in the Far East, it would not be unreasonable to expect Far Eastern operators to dominate world maritime business. Not a bit of it. For 120 years very powerful Western companies, backed by monopoly practices of linked banks and insurance companies, and supported by port authority regulations, ensure that a whopping 90% of world shipping is controlled by a dozen Western cartels. Only 8% of shipping is in the hands of Far Eastern operators, the people who build the ships, who sail them, who make the goods transported in them, and who dispose of the ships at the end of their working life. Cartel shipping fees represent another transfer of income from Asia to the West.
A container ship has a working life of around 20 years. The cost of disposal is also a cost that must be reflected in the price of goods transported. Ship breaking is a very labour intensive and extremely dangerous activity. There are no breaker’s yards catering for large ships in the West. They are all located in countries where wages are extremely low (Bangladesh, Pakistan), where health and safety legislation is non-existent or not enforced, and where the compensation for death and injury at work is a pittance. Another sign of how cheap goods are bought on the exploitation of others.

O Redding, 13 December 2013

1 comment:

  1. This is a great essay but do not forget that the movement of production to China and other low wage countries resulted in a restructuring of the distribution system within the US. The growing volume of commodities transported in shipping containers need to be transferred to semi trailers in order to reach local/regional distribution centers and finally retail outlets. This is a labor intensive process. I work in a major wal-mart distribution center, unloading shipping containers by hand and hand loading semi trailers. I can move over twenty thousand pounds of goods (two containers) in a 12 hour work day. My "employer" is a temp agency, and the distribution center is run by a third company (Schneider). Only because there was a strike in 2012 at my warehouse does this company even pay minimum wage (they used to pay piece rate, so people often made below minimum wage; now the starting pay for temps is $11/hr.) I wouldn't say that our conditions are comparable to those in underdeveloped countries, but a lot of my co-workers labor seven days a week in this industry; most are racially oppressed and fear deportation or experience police brutality; and almost all of us struggle to get by. Temp workers have no job security. We also have the ability, if we can get organized, to strike not only for our own interests but in solidarity with workers up and down the supply chain. So I appreciate this article but its important to know that high profits at wal-mart, target, and other major retailers who sit at the top of these global supply chains are also the product of low wages and oppression in the U.S.