Britain has a long maritime history, for good and ill. Great Yarmouth was one of the earliest record fishing centres of Europe, its fishers venturing as far as Iceland by the 14th century. From Tudor privateers in the Caribbean to 19th-century gunboat diplomacy, seagoing has been central to the UK’s place in the world, and a significant source of employment, whether voluntary or ‘pressed’.
But that’s not the case today, even though our society is even more reliant than ever on goods being shipped onto our shores: more than 95,000 cargo vessels arrived on our shores in 2019. We’re the fifth-largest importer of goods on a global scale.
Yet there are only about 220,000 maritime jobs in the UK, less than 1 per cent of total employment. That is a change from the past when many Britons went to sea or came into contact with seafarers from all around the world who went to sea in their service.
What today’s maritime workers’ lives are like is hardly a topic of daily conversation. Covid saw many trapped in desperate conditions; that received a little attention. The occasional dreadful case of seafarers abandoned by vessel’s owners, like that of the MV Ali Bey, is highlighted by NGOs, but mostly what’s happening beyond our shores is a giant blank in the public debate, and a space where almost anything goes. This is a wild west with no sheriff in sight.
It is hard not to think that this is not just a question of ‘out of sight, out of mind’, but deliberate, careful ignorance. We bear a responsibility for what happens in the vessels that sail from or arrive at our shores, bringing the goods we depend on, whichever flag of convenience they fly. Ninety-six per cent of EU-owned vessels now fly flags of convenience, enabling their owners to dodge tax, ignore environmental and labour regulation, and, when vessels come to the end of their life, ensure they are scrapped as cheaply as possible in disastrous environmental conditions.
Human rights are supposed to be universal, but as a question asked in the House of Lords this month by Lib Dem Lord Teverson highlighted, human rights at sea are only now starting to be established, with work continuing on the Geneva Declaration on Human Rights at Sea.
We need to start thinking about, and taking action for, the underpaid, overworked seafarer putting their life in danger to bring us the latest must-have toy or fashion item to be worn casually and discarded. Also, we’ve got to factor in the climate impact of the fuel that brings them, the damage done when containers fall from vessels, as they regularly do, or that all too often rust-bucket ships break up and sink, spilling their cargos into oceans, to drift and endanger animal life, and sometimes human life. And even what impact the noise of their passage has on marine life, as a new documentary, The Loneliest Whale, has just highlighted.
We cannot say that that is a cost over the horizon. That these costs currently fall on a small number of exploited, vulnerable workers, and the environment in which we all live, is just one more example of the externalised costs of our current economic model.
And even where domestic UK regulation does apply, there’s serious reason for concern. Labour’s Lord Berkeley this month secured a debate about the disturbing case of the Abigail H. There was a known, clear, evident solution to a safety risk exposed by the sinking, which the crew of the Abigail H escaped without serious injury and risk of death only through the luck of a vessel rolling one way rather than another.
It has taken 11 years to implement regulations to ensure that danger was prevented. In the meantime, we have subsequently seen nine similar incidents, while 425 similar ships on the UK ship register remain at risk. It is hard to believe that, had this been a safety issue with cargo planes or with HGVs, we would not have seen far faster action, or certainly a greater outcry until action was taken.
When we’re thinking about workers’ rights, about environmental standards, about the real costs of the way our society operates, we can no longer continue to ignore the 70 per cent of the earth’s surface that is water. Equal – or given the natural dangers, even greater – protections should apply, in rules on safety, workers’ conditions and environmental protections.