90% of everything

How many of the goods you own are transported by sea?
26 April 2016

Interview with 

Rose George


This week we're immersing ourselves in an industry that impacts all of our lives Container ships, Hamburgbut few of us ever encounter: the world of shipping. And here to help us launch this ship of a show, is Rose George; she's author of the book Deep Sea and Foreign Going, and she spent  five weeks aboard a container ship...

Rose - I departed from Felixstowe on a Friday, which is traditionally bad luck. Also being a woman on a ship is bad luck so it was a really good start. And we travelled to Singapore over 39 days calling in at a few ports in Europe and then going down the Suez Canal, through what was then known as the high risk area because it was infested with Somali pirates. Then down the coast calling in at Sri Lanka and then finally I disembarked at Singapore, very reluctantly.

Chris - Oh you were obviously enjoying then. So what was the sort of stature and scale of this ship? Just paint a picture of it for us.

Rose - Well, when I was standing on the quay at Felixstowe, I was looking up at this ship thinking it's absolutely enormous. But my journey was in 2010, even then it was just a midsized ship. She carried about 7,000 TEUs which is a 20 ft equivalent unit, which is what most of us would know as a container. A shorter container than you're probably used to seeing on the back of trucks on motorways. But now she would be considered tiny because shipping has grown in stature and the ships have grown in stature, even since I went to sea.  She was a pretty new ship - about 4 years old - called Mursk Kendal and I grew very, very fond of her although she's been renamed and reflagged and we can talk about that because that's what happens in shipping, so she no longer really exists.

Chris - The SI unit of sizes of things appears to be football fields. Did you play football on the deck of that ship just to give people an idea as to how big this thing is?

Rose - It was 300 metres long.

Chris - So pretty big then. Now in terms of the amount of cargo that moves around the world, what proportion of the world's cargo movements is shipping and how much stuff gets moved by sea every year?

Rose - We rely on shipping to bring us only about 95% of everything. Other countries - it can vary but generally worldwide it's 90% of everything -  90% of world trade travels by ship.  And when I was looking into doing the book, and researching the book, I asked my peers and my friends and people on twitter - how much stuff do you think travels by ship and the answers were just wrong. All of them were wrong. So it was 20%, 30%, 40% and the trouble with shipping is it's so efficient that people have kind of lost sight of it and there are other reasons we've lost sight of it as well.  But it just comes and goes every day - 80,000 to 100,000 ships bringing us all this trade from the other side of the world, very cheaply, very efficiently, and by people we don't tend to encounter any more because the role of seafarer is now taken by countries in the developing world usually.  And so we don't tend to encounter working seafarers in the industrialised world any more.

Chris - And are those people treated as well as someone who would expect employment law to be implemented in terms of what we would define good employment? 

Rose - Well it varies. To give you one statistic, the International Transport Workers Federation which is the main seafarer union, every year has to claw back 30 million dollars in money that should have been paid in wages to seafarers but isn't. So the thing with shipping is because of how it's made up because 60% of ships now fly what's called a flag of an open registry or a flag of convenience.  And what that means is once you're out on the high sea, the ship is governed by the state that operates that flag and you can switch flags very easily, and some flags are better than others.  And they control labour laws and wage levels and so, if you want to be unscrupulous and operate or ownership, it's quite easy to be that.  Luckily most people aren't but there is still a lot to be cleaned up in shipping and not just welfare standards.  That said, there is a law that came into force a couple of years ago which has been called the "magna carta for seafarers", and it's hopefully going to change things. But it's such a disparate and vast and wide industry with so many nationalities involved, and ships going through jurisdictions and having a flag from one country and an operator from another, crew from yet more, and boxes from all over the world. There's really no industry like it.

Chris - It doesn't sound like it. What are the other problems with shipping? We often dwell on things like climate change and greenhouse gas emissions when we're talking about sort of land based movement, what's the equivalent for shipping - are they well regulated - is it well monitored?

Rose - People often talk about something called the "lawless ocean" or the "lawless sea", and I usually say there are plenty of laws regulating the high seas. The I.M.O. (The International Maritime Organisation), which is the agency which oversees global shipping, is constanting giving new regulations and new laws. The trouble is is enforcement, and that's where a lot the problems arise because of, again, a very disparate and multinational mobile nature of shipping it can be very difficult to enforce something.

Chris -   Now you mentioned you were very sad to get off your boat when you had to depart in Singapore, so what's your most memorable experience, just very briefly, in our last 30 seconds?

Rose - It was probably when we hit the pirate area and suddenly the ship changed. Somebody had gone around and cut out cardboard boxes from the bond stores (the kind of tuck shop). So, suddenly, all the portholes and the windows were covered with pictures of rosy apples or Benson & Hedges cigarettes cartons and that really changed the mood on the ship.


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