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Author: Yanxi Fang
Date: Wntr 2021
From: Harvard International Review(Vol. 42, Issue 1)
Publisher: Harvard International Relations Council, Inc.
Document Type: Article
Length: 2,237 words
Lexile Measure: 1450L

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At any moment, nearly 50,000 cargo ships are crossing the oceans, carrying more than 5 million containers of goods destined for countries around the world. Fueling this massive operation is an equally large workforce of more than 1.6 million people, many of whom hail from developing countries such as Indonesia, Ukraine, India, and the Philippines. Collectively, these sailors ensure not only the continued success of global commerce, but also the safe movement of goods that are essential to the wellbeing of billions of people. However, despite the importance of their roles, sailors do not reap commensurate benefits--or in fact, much benefit at all. The maritime industry, which includes both cargo ships and passenger-carrying cruise ships, relies heavily on low-cost labor sourced directly from developing countries. Many sailors sign fixed-term contracts to serve on a particular ship for approximately four to six months; once their term ends, they typically return home to rest before joining another ship on a new contract. While on board, they work long hours and face enormous risks. One estimate suggests that approximately 2,000 sailors lose their lives every year while on the job; many more injuries and deaths have gone unreported. Furthermore, piracy also threatens the physical safety of ships and their crews even in heavily protected areas that see frequent ship traffic. Although sailors face highly dangerous conditions, they have very little protection from their employers, the international legal framework, and their home countries. Since their floating workplaces are almost always in international waters, no single country has the legal jurisdiction necessary to enforce labor rights and workplace safety. Even the United Nations (UN) has struggled to address this issue. For example, the international body's Law of the Sea Convention, adopted in 1982, does not address the dilemmas that sailors face in attempting to seek recourse for injustices suffered on the high seas. This status quo places an undue burden on the disadvantaged sailors, and unless the international community decides to accelerate the pace of regulation, sailor discontent may soon spark coordinated labor actions that threaten not only the stability of international supply chains, but also global security itself.

Deregulating the High Seas

At its core, the plight of modern sailors is the product of economic incentives. The cost efficiency of ocean shipping comes not just from optimizing fuel usage or leveraging economies of scale, but also from the industry's avoidance of all types of unnecessary costs. Many ships around the world carry so-called flags of convenience: by registering in a country with lax safety regulations, fewer taxes, and a lower minimum wage, shipowners can avoid costly laws and reduce their exposure to legal action. At the same time, the registering countries have little incentive to change their regulations because they generate a significant amount of revenue. Although such countries may collect fewer taxes on each ship than other countries, the income quickly adds up: half of the world's ocean fleet is registered in Panama, Liberia, and the Marshall Islands, three relatively small countries that...

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