Is there such a thing as fair shipping? At the recent London International Shipping Week, I was asked to be part of a panel addressing just this issue. I was able to say with some confidence, reflecting much of what I have heard from MtS teams across the world, that a great deal has been achieved. We can bear witness to many good shipping companies and many happy and well-supported crews. The MLC has marked a further step along that road of improvement. There is indeed much to celebrate and we can be rightly proud of the part that our Mission has played in progress.
From our earliest days, Mission staff have been deeply concerned about fairness, about justice, about human dignity. Way back at the end of the nineteenth century, the Mission was closely involved in highlighting the issues of “crimping”. Crimping involved the use of trickery, intimidation and violence by criminals, who were nicknamed crimps, and it flourished as a result of the way seafarers were paid. Instead of receiving their money on board ship, they were paid a few days later at their shipping company’s offices. During those three or four days, crimps provided sailors with money, alcohol, food and lodgings, under the guise of hospitality. When payday arrived, the crimp presented his bill, which, in most cases, exhausted the seafarer’s pay packet. Virtually penniless, he was forced to ship out again. Stopping the crimps became a determined campaign of the Revd Robert Boyer, the first superintendent of The Missions to Seamen. Boyer fought passionately against crimping, and the pressure he put on the authorities to deal with it played a large part in the implementation of the Transmission of Wages Scheme (1880), whereby seafarers were supplied with a rail ticket and some money on leaving their ship, receiving the bulk of their wages at home via a money order.
Thankfully that practice is now ended – and progress has been made across many other fronts. It is very important that the Mission is seen to recognise that progress and affirm good practice and good companies. At the same time, there remain, as we all know, significant corners of the shipping industry where exploitation and unfair practice continues. Our chaplaincy teams continue to see plenty of examples. Unpaid wages, abandonments, bullying and mistreatment of various kinds are still very much in evidence. My recent conversations with seafarers and their families in India highlighted again the reality of exploitative crewing agencies, often acting illegally. These agencies might provide access to work, although often to the darker corners of the shipping industry, but do so only for a significant fee, once again drawing families into debt.
Our justice and advocacy work remains central to our mission work. It is part of what building the Kingdom of God looks like. The Anglican Church’s “marks of mission”, in line with biblical imperatives, commit us “to transform unjust structures of society, to challenge violence of every kind and to pursue peace and reconciliation”.
Is there such a thing as fair shipping? A school report might read “much progress but still some way to go”. At The Mission to Seafarers we will continue to work with others to finish the job.