Ninety Percent of Everything

If William Hope Hodgson were to read this book, he would just shake his head and ruefully smile at how the basic hardships of life in the mercantile navy haven’t changed that much in more than a 100 years.

The review copy for this one came from LibraryThing. I only promise to eventually read and review books sent to me. I don’t promise when.

Review: Ninety Percent of Everything: Inside Shipping, the Invisible Industry That Puts Clothes on Your Back, Gas in Your Car, and Food on Your Plate, Rose George, 2013.

This is the compelling and interesting story of how those big steel boxes, shipping containers, you see on trains and trucks make their way across the oceans.

George was given the unique opportunity to take passage on the Maersk Kendal on a voyage from Felixstowe, UK to Singapore. It’s a trip that took her to points of call in Europe, through the Suez Canal (dubbed by all crews passing through as the “Marlboro Canal” for the copious amounts of said cigarette passed out as bribes there), and through pirate infested waters.

The huge container ships are the product of a 1956 innovation, the standardized shipping container, which started to revolutionize shipping in the late 1960s. It reduced the percentage of an item’s price that represents shipping costs from 25 percent to 2.5 percent. It destroyed the influence of dockworkers. Whereas it would take days to unload cargo from even a medium size ship in pre-container days, even the largest container ship can be unloaded in less than a day. It also destroyed local jobs. It’s cheaper to ship fish caught off the coast of Scotland to China to have them filleted and ship them back rather than hire Scotsmen to do the filleting.

The crews of the container ships don’t know or care what are in the containers unless it’s toxic, flammable, or needs refrigeration.

Neither, for that matter, do port authorities. In the wake of 9/11, the US pushed an international protocol, the Secure Freight Initiative for cargo inspection. Implemented in 2007, it sought to inspect every container being received in the US. By 2013, it had managed, at best, five percent in Hong Kong. It still seems merely a security bureaucrat’s dream.

And sometimes the containers fall off the ship or have their contents pilfered in in port.

The ships themselves are crewed by small numbers of people with Filipinos being the predominant nationality. They work cheap – sometimes way cheaper than the official books maintained for the International Transport Worker’s Federation indicate. And they speak English. Attempts have been made to institute stripped down English dialects, Maritime English and Seaspeak, but they are little used.

That contributes to a sense of isolation among the multinational crews, not really alleviated by the onboard gyms, certainly not alleviated by the poor food. Crews, at least in 2013 (the situation seems to have improved lately), had no internet or phone access, their emails routed through the captain for transmission. They spend their off deck hours in their spartanly furnished berths.

One of the narrative side trips George takes is to the Seafarer’s Center in Immingham, UK. It is one of many religious organizations tending to ships’ crews throughout the world. These days, in line with the general decline in church attendance, their church services are taken advantage of less than the cheap SIM cards, batteries, and warm clothing they provide. A popular item is cheap souvenirs for families back home, evidence of visits the seafarers never made. A crewmember on a container ship may spend as little as two hours in port after months at sea. A particularly poignant story is told of the crew of one ship who simply wanted, in their short time on land, to walk barefoot on grass for an hour. (For Maersk employees, there’s no drinking on ship or on shore.)

The sea is, of course, a hostile environment, and George discusses the various unpleasant things that can happen to the human body adrift in a lifeboat. The mariner code of honor – that those in peril are assisted no matter how much expense incurred in missed berthing slots or fuel or time – is fraying. Captain Glenn Wostenholme of the Maersk Kendal, a man with more than 40 years at sea, won a medal for rescuing part of the crew of a Thai cargo ship in 2007. Of the five ships in the area when a distress call was put out, one simply ignored it. Two said they would answer the call and didn’t.

There are few consequences for ignoring this code even though it is actually a legal obligation under an international convention. The legal environment international shipping exists in makes enforcing liability claims against it or labor regulations complicated. Ships fly “flags of convenience” (the Maersk Kendal has a vast cupboard of different flags) and are registered to various countries including some that have no connection to the sea at all. Mongolia is a popular country of registration along with Panama and Liberia. The shipowners may belong to a third country.

And this legal arrangement can not only screw crews over with rickety, unsafe ships and unanswered rescue pleas, companies have been known to simply abandon their crews in port with no money when they go bankrupt or determine they simply don’t want to run a ship anymore. Some stranded crews have been known to take to killing stray dogs for food.

And, of course, there are pirates, particularly Somali pirates at the time of this book. (The Somali piracy problem seems to have lessened in the years since with prosecutions, rare when it was written, being stepped up.) George spends some time with a multi-national force patrolling the vast “high risk area” extending from eastern Africa into the Indian Ocean for pirates.

George is markedly less sympathetic to the pirates than the military people and even Maersk Kendal’s crew are. She quotes fatuous articles from business magazines on the “entrepreneurial model” of Somali piracy which aims at securing hostages for ransom. The navies feel sorry for the Somalis they detain. (Rumors have that the Russian Navy simply blew up Somali pirate vessels along with their crew.) She talked with a man taken hostage by Somalians, and we hear of torture, bad food, and the terror of dealing every day with khat-chewing, gun-waving Somali. We also hear from a highly paid consultant on the intricacies of conducting ransom negotiations with pirates. No one, including George, seems to seriously entertain the idea of simply destroying known pirate bases in Somalia.

Besides tagging along with the pirate patrol, George takes us to a Massachusetts whale watching group to talk about the disruptive effects of maritime traffic, specifically the noise of ships’ propellers, on marine life. Ship’s crews generally like whales and dolphins and are happy to see them and slow their ships down to alleviate the ocean’s noise problem in particularly affected areas. Ship owners, of course, often have other ideas.

George occasionally reaches back into history for fascinating stories and facts. She does that with the lack of respect the merchant marine received in America and Britain during World War Two as well as her chapter on the miseries of being in a lifeboat.

In 1904, Andrew Furuseth, a labor organizer for seafarers, was threatened with jail. His reply was, go ahead, put him in jail. His cell would be bigger than his ship quarters, the food better, and the isolation less than what he would suffer at sea. Captain Wostenholme, near the end of his career, emails his employer,

You can see how we are really thought of . . . Riffraff that no one really cares about, no matter the lip service paid to our safety and welfare by the likes of owners, flag states . . . We are mere chattels, a human resource, dispensable nonentities.

George’s book is very slightly dated now but still a fascinating, well-presented account of a life that most of us are fortunate enough to avoid – even though we benefit from “that ninety percent of everything” it delivers to us.

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