A massive freight ship approaches the Duluth harbor. A siren sounds as traffic in Canal Park comes to a halt. Onlookers gather to take pictures and greet the ship as it prepares to dock, gracefully floating beneath the Aerial Lift Bridge. We watch—transfixed by the ship’s might and scale.
This is a quintessential image of Duluth, but what happens onboard is less romantic. Ninety percent of our local ship traffic are “lakers”—United States or Canadian flagged vessels, bound for other ports on the Great Lakes. Lakers are subject to the labor laws, taxation, and regulations of the United States or Canada.
The other 10 percent—the international vessels—are a different story. Recently, the Duluth Harbor has welcomed ships from Hong Kong, Cyprus, Antigua, Barbados, Panama, Liberia, and the Marshall Islands.
While these countries hardly bring to mind economic powerhouses, they control the majority of commerce and trade on this planet—in large part because maritime law allows companies to flag their ships from whatever country the company sees fit.
Known as “Flag of Convenience,” this convention allows companies to “flag,” or register their ships in a sovereign state different from that of the ship’s owners.
The vessel then flies the flag of the country in which it is registered. Most importantly for those who work aboard, the vessel is subject to the legal jurisdiction of the country to which it is flagged.
It is often to the advantage of companies in Western Europe or the US to flag their ships in countries with lax labor laws, lower taxes, and lower regulatory standards. This allows for cheaper and more efficient trade, but has created a kind of Wild West in the shipping industry.
Workers aboard international vessels make no more than $30 a day. By comparison, the lowest paid workers in the domestic US maritime industry generally make more than $100 for a day’s work.
The majority of laborers on international vessels come from places like the Philippines and Indonesia, where exchange rates give them more spending power at home. However, they are often away from home for months or years at a time, living at sea in substandard conditions.
One maritime worker, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of losing his job, describes employee berths as “cramped, damp, steel boxes that...enclose the dreams of a long-exploited water-bound working class.”
A July investigation by the New York Times found both humans and waste cast overboard to save money. If discovered on an international ship, a stowaway’s fate is left to the ship’s captain, who will have to pay a surcharge for arriving in port with undocumented passengers. To avoid this, stowaways—usually desperate refugees—are often simply thrown overboard.
Unloading oil becomes a similarly avoidable cost. Since regulatory bodies governing ocean transport are lax, captains just turn off their radar and dump their oil mid-transport. [Author’s disclosure: I worked for the Mississippi-based Yazoo River Towing last summer, and we were told to dump waste straight into the Mississippi River, so long as the Coast Guard wasn’t nearby.]
As long as accountability remains low or non-existent, life below deck will be a reality invisible to those in the harbor who watch the ships come in.
Grady McGregor is a Duluth native and a senior at Wesleyan University, pursuing a degree in Anthropology and East Asian Studies. His interests include labor relations, tennis, and finding a sauna anywhere.