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  • Sweatshops at Sea: Merchant Seamen in the World’s First Globalized Industry, from 1812 to the Present by Leon Fink
  • Kenyon Zimmer
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. 278 pp. $34.95).

This is a magesterial book by one of America’s leading labor historians. Sweatshops at Sea covers nearly 200 years of maritime history within a sleek 202 [End Page 791] pages of text, but it is no mere synthesis; rather, it is a new master narrative of globalization and labor’s responses to it. Fink sees the history of transoceanic shipping—“the first great American industry to be outsourced to foreign competition” (34)—as a bellwether for other industries, and looks to the long history of international campaigns for maritime labor reforms, as well as of “the first global labor union” (118), the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF), for guidance. He persuasively argues that “what happens on the world’s waters is likely to tell us a great deal about the possibilities of humane governance in a globalized world economy” (6).

Sweatshops at Sea is chiefly focused on the United States and England, the undisputed world shipping leaders at the dawn of the nineteenth century. While this limits its analysis largely to the English-speaking Atlantic, its range is nonetheless sweeping. Fink opens with the outbreak of the War of 1812, which, he reminds us, was precipitated by an international conflict over the rights of merchant seamen–namely, the right of naturalized American citizens of British birth to not face impressment by the Royal Navy. He then launches into a narrative of the transatlantic struggles by seamen, reformers, and politicians to end not only impressment, but also flogging and the threat of imprisonment for “desertion,” and to impose universal safety and welfare standards on the industry. Along the way he touches on everything from portrayals of maritime labor in American and British fiction to the formation and activities of the International Labor Organization (ILO).

The campaign waged by Liberal MP Samuel Plimsoll in the 1870s to impose load line standards (the so-called “Plimsoll line”) is the subject of an entire chapter, as is the Seamen’s Act of 1915, better known as the La Follette Act. Though this is familiar historical ground, Fink makes a major contribution by placing such efforts in relation to one another and as part of a much larger tale. Plimsoll is therefore presented as a harbinger of the interventionist welfare state, while the La Follette Act “might well be considered the first serious and systematic policy response to the pressures of the world market on the American workplace” (93). Fink also discusses the “openly racist and xenophobic impulses” that animated some of this legislation (106) as part of a persistent dilemma faced by American and European seamen as they fought to secure gains for themselves while facing increasing job competition from foreign workers, which “opened the door either to a strategy of international organizing or of nationalist protectionism” (119).

The most intriguing section of Sweatshops at Sea deals with the recent past. Since 1970 the rise of ships flying “flags of convenience” (FOCs) that allow them to avoid strong labor protections by sailing under the banners—and legal jurisdiction—of countries such as Panama, Liberia, and the Marshall Islands has led to a precipitous decline in American and European maritime labor, as the shipping industry’s workforce has shifted to the Third World. Yet Fink’s assessment of the contemporary situation is surprisingly hopeful. These recent changes provoked, in his words, “one of the most original, far-reaching, and sustained campaigns in all world labor history” (178), spearheaded by the ITF and ILO. Drawing from recent work on the topic by political scientists and economists, as well as his own interviews with numerous union officials, Fink recounts how the ITF has met the challenge of FOCs through the creation of an innovative and flexible framework of negotiable standards enforced by an international, union-run ship inspection regime. Using this system, by 2001 the ITF had negotiated contracts covering...


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