Distraction Free Reading

Cargo Ships and Comrades: On the Occasion of the Beached Ever Given

In 2018, we took a cargo ship from Barcelona to New York City and made a short film called Slop Chest [1] about the blurry distinction between work and leisure when you live where you work—and can’t leave. Here, we describe some of our experiences on board, drawing resonances between the labor practices in international shipping and in Amazon’s warehouses. Writing while the cargo ship Ever Given is blocking all trade through the Suez Canal and while Amazon employees in Bessemer, Alabama, are preparing to count votes in favor of unionization, we speculate about how these two events resonate. What are contours of this conjuncture?


There are three separate crews on board our ship: the officers, the engineers, and the deck crew who are responsible for maintaining the ship and keeping watch. The captain is Polish and the officers are similarly white and eastern European. The engineers are mostly the same, while the deck crew are exclusively Filipino. A deck  crew member tells us that cargo companies put Filipino crews on old, rusty ships like the one we are taking from Barcelona to New York City in order to repair the ship—or at least hold it together—while it is still in motion. The cook and his assistant are Filipino, and each day they prepare three meals for two separate mess halls: the crew’s, with vinegar and shrimp paste on the tables, and the officers’, with tablecloths and a more random assortment of condiments. The captain has his own table that he shares with the chief engineer and first mate (we are never invited to join them). Looking out the windows towards the front of the ship, our view is blocked by stacks of standardized intermodal containers. There is a spiral staircase that leads from the officer’s dining room up to their recreation room. During our single visit, two young men play FIFA in silence. Either they stopped talking when we arrived, or they were not talking to begin with.

It might be unsurprising to hear that cargo ships are lonely places. Although they can carry tens of thousands of containers, they often employ a skeletal crew. On our ship, there are twenty-seven crewmembers and four passengers. Work is usually done in pairs for safety, but everyone’s time on the ship is marked by solitude. This solitude is by design: today’s shipping routes are staffed by management companies that specialize in logistics and low-cost labor. These management companies force people to change vessels with each contract, and contracts are variable lengths depending on seniority and experience. The shortest contract on our ship—the captain’s—is two months. The longest—the mess mate’s—is nine months. The result of all of this movement and variation is that there is never a single crew; it is nearly impossible to develop continuous relationships with colleagues; it is nearly impossible to organize around shared interests and vulnerabilities. The only site where crew, officers, and engineers share leisure time is the gym with its homemade free weights, booty posters, and its curious library: Russian erotica, a Samuel Delany paperback in French, and Colette.

“We don’t have a regular time to go to break, and it’s very inconsistent. One day I heard an older gentleman ask a PA why he couldn’t go on break at his regular time, and you could tell he was tired because he was leaning over. She said, ‘If you don’t go when I asked you to go, you won’t get a break at all.’” – Jennifer Bates, on working for Amazon (quoted in Bort 2021).

We are invited to join the deck crew in their rec room for Mark’s birthday. We bring a case of San Miguel purchased from the slop chest for this purpose. [Tucker] I drink too much light beer and contraband whiskey. I remember songs. I remember Mark talking about his tattoos, but that might have been another occasion. They are much more detailed than mine, and his eyes widen when I answer his question about how much I paid my artists.

A week later, the captain brings a case of Beck’s to the pig roast on the rear deck. [Tucker] I think this might be called the poop deck, or possibly the aft deck. At the party, we help tend the pig, slowly turning it over a fire of pallet wood and charcoal, rotating the spit on the roaster the bosun and the welder made earlier in the day. We dance, drink, and play poker with a young Ukrainian engineer, using cards we found in the unfrequented owner’s recreation room on our floor. [Hannah] The cards are in a language I can’t read, left by another passenger or crew member after they left the ship. When he lays down a set of queens, the engineer tells us this is called a “harem.” Gatherings like this are relatively common; we’re told they happen once per month.

While operating companies work to stifle any community that could lead to discussions of shared labor issues across crew designations, contracts, and nationalities, these companies also believe— seemingly paradoxically—that social relationships improve efficiency. Institutionalized social events such as the pig roast create the appearance of sociability without coming into conflict with policies designed to discourage organized labor. So-called “sociability” is highly encouraged aboard cargo ships, because metrics suggest that issues such as mental illness, loneliness, or addiction affect the frequency of accidents on board—and thus jeopardize shipping schedules (Das 2019). As a result, socialization is managed and encouraged as an issue of security; when carried out properly, socialization is imagined to prevent blockages in the circulation of global commodities (Cowen 2014). These gatherings promote a facade of sociability among seafarers, even as the possibility of developing rich relationships with fellow crew members is undermined in strategic efforts to prevent labor organizing—another potential threat to the flows of global trade.

“We encourage people to speak with the hundreds of thousands of Amazon employees who love their jobs, earn at least $15 an hour, receive comprehensive healthcare and paid leave benefits, prefer direct dialogue with their managers, and voted Amazon #2 on the Forbes best employers list in 2020.” – Amazon representative,  speaking in reference to recent unionization efforts among employees in Bessemer, Alabama (quoted in Bort 2021).

After many drinks, we end up in the rudder room surrounded by towering bundles of mooring line. A crew member has positioned an empty Sky Flakes tin under a leaking piece of machinery. The matzo-like Sky Flakes seem to be as important for their containers as their carbohydrates, and we encounter the different form factors of red white and blue boxes throughout the ship. [Tucker] This particular leaky machine helps move the rudder, which I had briefly controlled a few days before at the invitation of the third mate. He did not expect me to turn the wheel so quickly: he was used to operating this 1000 foot-long vessel; I was used to driving passenger cars. No one invited Hannah to steer the ship.

[Hannah] For a moment in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, Tucker’s hand is on the wheel that steers a ship the size of a commercial city block. There is no risk of capsizing or altering course—the vessel is probably on autopilot—and yet, my heart flutters in my chest, full of a sense of possibility. It is almost unimaginable to hold something so monumental, something that has such inertia, in one’s hand. For a moment in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, perhaps we could change direction.


By the time of publication, the Ever Given had been unstuck from the canal and the union drive in Bessemer had been defeated. It is estimated that the Suez blockage cost the world economy billions of USD per day, and the government of Egypt is reportedly seeking 1 billion USD in damages. Workers at the Amazon warehouse voted 1798 – 738 against unionizing. There are about 5900 workers at the Bessemer Amazon facility; there are about 30 workers on board a cargo ship at any given time.

Photo of a closed door on the exterior breezeway of a cargo ship, painted white with red lettering stenciled onto it that reads, "Suez Crew Room."

At the Suez Canal, both a local pilot and a local crew embark to help massive ships move safely through the narrow passage. Employing a local crew also ensures more money flows into the port, because each ship passing through the canal pays for the Suez crew’s service. This crew has special accommodations: on our ship, the doors to their quarters opened directly onto an outdoor breezeway, rather than onto internal hallways. This is a security measure, we were told.

Notes

[1] A “slop chest” is a store of clothing and personal requisites (such as tobacco) carried on merchant ships for issue to the crew usually as a charge against their wages.

References

Bort, R. (2021). “Jennifer Bates on Organizing Amazon’s Alabama Union Drive and Taking on Jeff Bezos.” Rolling Stone. March 29, 2021.  https://www.rollingstone.com/politics/politics-features/jennifer-bates-amazon-union-organizer-interview-jeff-bezos-1147426/

Cowen, D. (2014). The Deadly Life of Logistics: Mapping Violence in Global Trade. University of Minnesota Press.Das, S. N. (2019). The Unsociability of Commercial Seafaring: Language Practice and Ideology in Maritime Technocracy. American Anthropologist. 121(1): 62-75.

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