The most striking thing about traveling on a containership over the course of several weeks –as I have now done twice– is the manner in which time and everyday life are differently structured for the traveller. In the absence of internet connection, one’s connection to the always hurtling news cycle is attenuated. One can spend more time reading, more time reflecting, and, in my case, more time speaking to the officers and crews aboard the containership.
My containership travel was part of research I am conducting about ports and maritime transport infrastructures in the Arabian Peninsula and the dizzying rise and fall of different ports there over the course of the 20th century. This is a story of capital accumulation, structural transformations in the economic, political and social relations of those countries because of capitalisation of their economies, and the centrality of these ports not only to military logistics and war, but also to questions of labour struggle and citizenship.
I found that travelling on a containership not only gave me a granular view into the daily work of crew members but also provided an extraordinary, even unique, occasion to observe how a ship arrives into work and the workings of a port. Some of the ports we visited were those to which I had been denied access from landside, even with all sorts of excellent recommendations, reasons, and letters of introduction. To be able to see the differences between these ports, but also to hear about the officers on board the ship about the ways in which these ports had changed over time was extraordinarily useful.
It is also important to note that while my time and daily life slowed down to allow for a reflective time of reading and writing, the schedule of work for the crew members and officers onboard the ship was gruelling. They all worked two four-hour shifts per day in the engine-room, on deck, or in the control room. Their sleep time was radically slashed by this bifurcated workday. The work they performed was often tedious, repetitive and physically demanding.
Although a ship provides a romantic setting for many a novel, and although the sea is often seen as some sort of transcendental sublime, the reality of daily work on the ship is much closer to a tightly monitored factory floor, with ironclad discipline, and hierarchies of control within the workplace. That the officers of European-flagged ships are often (Eastern) European, while crew members are overwhelmingly from Asia, and specifically the Philippines, and precisely because they have radically different pay-scales and contract terms, this hierarchy onboard the ship ends up becoming a microcosm of global inequality, and racialization of forms of labour.
Ports –particularly in places like the Arabian Peninsula that are so heavily dependent on migrant labour– similarly show the ways in which labour is structured by class, points of origin, gender, and of course race. Here most port managers, legal staff, and finance/accounting administrators are from northwestern Europe, and technical managers (engineers, harbour masters etc) from places like India which produce a class of technical workers that occupy such midlevel positions. The blue-colour workers, skilled and unskilled, are an international of working class from Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka. Even land-locked countries like Nepal provide the security forces that guard these heavily fortified spaces. Women, if they are there at all are there as cleaners and clerical workers. As the nature of work in these ports shifts from a more physically-intensive form of labour (for example as dockers and stevedores) to higher automation, the makeup of the workforce and indeed the nature of labour itself also transform.
What travelling on the ship allowed me to see was a glimpse of this global movement of workers; of work; of goods and capital; and even of the naval forces that secure the lanes through which our ships travelled.
I have written about these experiences at my blog thegamming.org, and hope to teach about it in a course I will begin teaching next year in the Politics Department on infrastructures and the struggle over their making, ownership, use, and effect on social and political relation.
Laleh Khalili is a professor of Middle East politics in the department of Politics and International Studies at SOAS. The research project as part of which she travelled on the containership was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council. She will begin teaching a course on infrastructures in the academic year 2017-2018.