Sweatshops at Sea: Merchant Seamen in the World's First Globalized Industry, from 1812 to the Present (review)
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Sweatshops at Sea: Merchant Seamen in the World's First Globalized Industry, from 1812 to the Present. By Leon Fink. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011. Pp. 288. $34.95 cloth)

Leon Fink's Sweatshops at Sea focuses on American, British, and transnational attempts at maritime labor regulation from the patriarchal framework developed in the nineteenth century to the modern complex negotiations between a diverse international labor force, governments, and multinational shipping corporations. The evocative title at once reveals Fink's sympathies and identifies this as a work firmly in the tradition of institutional labor histories.

Sweatshops at Sea divides into three sections, each focused on the regulatory tensions of a specific era. "Mastered and Commandered" explores the growing but limited set of paternalistic protections offered seafarers on British and U.S. vessels, highlighting the rise of a cohort of reformers who combined national interest and moral uplift in their call for additional regulation. "Strategies of Reform" examines the unique ways in which seafaring labor grew increasingly, theoretically embroiled with notions of prosperity and security of the nation-state in the years leading to the end of World War I. The final section, "A World Fit for Seafarers?," explains "the international, multilateral mechanisms of workplace regulation that first appeared [End Page 484] in the twentieth century" and continue forward in increasingly globalized and atomized ways (p. 5). Here Fink also turns from historian to prolabor optimist, suggesting that the recent limited successes of international seamen's organizations in raising safety standards and checking the regulatory "race to the bottom" brought on by flags of convenience could challenge the "neoliberalist globalism" that "currently threatens national social sovereignty in the name of worldwide market forces" (p. 201).

The book is most valuable for its coherent history of the rise of reform movements on behalf of sailors, championed by a transatlantic cohort of labor activists and elite, paternalist reformers, including Richard Henry Dana, Samuel Plimsol, and Robert Lafollette, even if it presents these movements at times as though they were the work entirely of a few great men. Additionally, it does an excellent job of exploring the tensions between maritime matters as part of a decidedly national project but composed of globalized, transnational workers. Both in the halls of Congress and Parliament and among multiracial crews all over the world, Fink deals in a nuanced way with the ways race and nation pulled apart seafarers despite grand appeals to universal rights and transnational solidarity.

Fink presents the material largely as labor history without laborers, however, opting instead to focus on the rise of regulatory regimes rather than exploring how these issues played out on decks and in courts. In the early section, the book does a stronger of job examining the lofty rhetorical debate over the rights and protections for seafarers on U.S.- and British-flagged ships than it does in illustrating the actual legal framework that was crafted to govern shipboard activities. Many of the most important legal protections for American seafarers developed in the first half of the nineteenth century are, at best, barely mentioned. Moreover, important participants in the conversations-jurists, guidebook authors, and consuls-are omitted, to the detriment of the project.

Finally, although at times Fink's decision to deal with both American and British regulatory efforts offers valuable insight, it also confuses the project. The conversation about regulation, labor [End Page 485] organization, safety, and national security on the water was often a transatlantic one. The specific legal and legislative frameworks, however, were national, at least until the mid-twentieth century, so the dual focus of the project confuses as much as it illuminates.

Sweatshops at Sea accomplishes its author's hope of adding "a novel angle to the well-established, rich field of maritime history" by providing a synthetic narrative of regulation from reformers, governments, unionists, and international authorities across two centuries (p. 2). That said, the project fails to fulfill that promise completely. The attempt for a grand synthesis is both admirable and necessary, and the greatest value of the book is in bringing these diverse actors and ideologies together across the longue durée, but...


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