The Spark

the Voice of
The Communist League of Revolutionary Workers–Internationalist

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.”
— Karl Marx

Left behind by Overseas Shipping

May 9, 2022

This article is translated from the May 6th issue, #2805 of Lutte Ouvrière (Workers Struggle), the paper of the revolutionary workers group of that name active in France.

The Chinese government’s policy of quarantine to fight the new wave of the epidemic is causing renewed congestion in the ports of the country called “the workshop of the world.” This is leading to renewed disruptions of overseas shipping—and in the world economy.

But the coming storm will not have the same consequences for everyone. The companies that own container ships will have a new opportunity to get even richer. The years 2020 and 2021 saw both the greatest disorder in maritime trade and the greatest profits for the conglomerates of shipowners who corner the market. But on the bottom of the pyramid of exploitation, tens of millions of workers in Africa whose survival depends on world trade fell one step deeper into poverty.

Impoverished as it is, Africa is integrated into the world market and depends on its ports. Almost all manufactured products are shipped in containers, and this shipping is monopolized by the world’s three leaders in piracy: Maersk, MSC, and CMA-CGM. Containers shuttle between continents on giant ships capable of carrying more than 20,000 of them. But, because they draft nearly 40 feet of water, these boats can only dock at five ports on the entire African continent. Two of them are transfer facilities for international lines serving Europe: Tangier-Med at the tip of the Mediterranean, and Port-Saïd at the entrance of the Suez Canal. The industrial port of Durban in South Africa and Alexandria at the mouth of the Nile in Egypt cannot serve the interior of the continent, given their geographical locations. What remains is Lomé in Togo in West Africa. East Africa has no such deep water port.

So containers have to be transferred to smaller ships at Tanger-Med or Lomé or carried from Europe, Asia, or America on much smaller container ships. But this reduces the profitability of the operation compared to the major maritime routes traveled by super-container ships.

The profitability of container transport is also limited by Africa’s peculiar situation. The continent has become an exporter of raw materials. But these are exported on different ships, not container ships. Yet Africa is a net importer of consumer goods. The containers that bring products to Ivory Coast’s Abidjan or Togo’s Lomé often leave empty, because of the lack of manufactured products to export. Shipowners then make their customers pay the price of this empty return voyage.

During the great post-Covid traffic jam and the simultaneous explosion in shipowner company profits, the companies clamped down even more on Africa by removing entire shipping routes. Planned stopovers were canceled and the affected parties notified at the last minute when ships arrived late. Companies charged customers to pick up their containers at other African ports. Up against the power of the world’s leading shipping companies, protests by Ivory Coast bosses or even Senegalese cabinet ministers carried little weight. So, prices rose even higher than elsewhere. Last December the average price on the Shanghai-Lagos line was 55 dollars per nautical mile per container, but only 20 dollars per mile per container on the Shanghai-New York line.

These gangster tariffs and the shutdown of the economy throw some workers in ports and nearby industrial zones out of work, and ravage the standard of living of everyone there. Meanwhile the profits of Maersk, MSC, and CMA-CGM are at record highs. If property is theft, then what is the concentration of capital?