Feb 4, 2019
The following article was translated from Lutte Ouvrière, the newspaper of the French revolutionary workers’ group of that name.
On the night of January 1, 2019, containers from the ship MSC Zoe were washed overboard in the North Sea during a storm with high winds. This calamity strewed cargo that washed up on the Frisian Islands near the German coast, spreading the remains for miles along the beaches. Containers and boxes of stuff sank to the sea bottom, but some material floated on the surface. There it constitutes a danger to shipping in this area, among the busiest sea lanes in the world. Pieces of all these goods that sank polluted the waters. Three missing containers held explosive chemicals that could emit dangerous gases.
Since it launched in 2015, the MSC (Mediterranean Shipping Company) Zoe ranks among the largest container ships in the world, able to carry 19,000 containers. It is longer than four football fields end to end. And it is part of the second largest group among shipping firms in the world.
The storm on January 1st is the kind that can be expected in the North Sea at this time of year. So this kind of event, losing containers, is normal, even expected with these container ships. Containers falling off giant ships happens every time the winds are strong.
The loss of containers is not the worst problem with these giant ships. On such enormous ships, with a crew of 30 people at best, it’s impossible to intervene when there are problems. And it's impossible to know what is in the containers, thanks to commercial secrecy. No one knows when the containers represent danger. In 2018, two ships were lost, with five mariners dead, thanks to spontaneous combustion in some containers, leading to a deadly fire.
The problem is the size of these container ships, the heights to which they are stacked, the fact that ships are not capable of maneuvering in case of heavy seas or storms. It’s as if people blind and deaf have to steer across shipping lanes that are crowded – just like 18-wheeler trucks maneuvering on the roads.
No tug boats are powerful enough to come to the rescue when such big ships have trouble in the Channel. And worse, these big container ships, burning heavy fuel oil, discharge enormous amounts of fine particles, a major cause of ocean pollution. Even the big insurance companies hesitate to deal with these monster ships because, including their cargoes, they are valued at something like two billion dollars apiece.
At least 5,000 container ships circle the globe, of which 136 are these giant ones, capable of carrying more than 18,000 containers apiece. Over three-quarters of the big ships are owned by three shipping groups. In the past 40 years, with world production tripling, marine transport has increased six times and for some materials, like coal, minerals and agricultural products, it has increased seven times as much as used to be carried on ships.
Giant container ships may be the latest technology, but they are also ticking bombs, worked by a skeleton crew. Designed to exploit the labor of the worst situated workers, these great ships are the image of capitalism in the 21st century.