Saturday, February 21, 2009

The Floating Labor Camps of the Now

[Image: According to the Financial Times, this is the former prison ship that houses foreign workers employed at Lindsey Refinery, at Grimsby docks.]

In the last few weeks fierce demonstrations and strikes have erupted across Britain over the issue of foreign labor. “Some 6,000 workers across over 20 construction sites at power stations and oil refineries took unofficial action as part of the dispute” from sites all across England, Scotland and Wales.
This all seems to have ignited around some of the dealings at the Kent power station, which – as far as I can tell – has been subcontracting major labor contracts to firms who use foreign laborers exclusively, which of course has set off a firestorm over cheap labor moving in on the territory of the local workforce.
Tough times, tough economies, the borders of desperate capitalism bursting wide open at the seams.
Now, admittedly I know nothing about this situation. There are apparently a number of firms who have been granted contracts that UK labor unions claim have been dolling out work to non-British citizens: from Polish and Lithuanian construction workers to Italian and Portuguese, primarily.
The Socialist Worker made this comment: “Behind the rash of strikes in the construction industry lies a concerted attempt by multinational construction companies to tear up hard-won agreements covering the safety, wages and conditions on multi-million pound sites.” In the same article they point to the Financial Times who reported "building bosses admitting to using the subcontracting system to try and hold down militancy in the industry.” The real reason, Socialist Worker says groups of workers are being shipped in is to control the subcontracting system.
It’s not a surprise, nor is it even remotely unfathomable.
But, labor politics aside, what caught my attention in all of this was the vessel one company has used to bring over Italian laborers and house them as well, moored on the docks for the duration of their contract.
According to this article, it is quite literally an old prison barge that’s been converted into dismally cheap shelter. Not only is the interior what you mght expect of an old prison ship, but “Italian workers living there claimed they could not leave it without being attacked by angry locals.” They are being vanned in to the sites for their protection.
Wow. Not only is it literally and functionally an old prison ship but by virtue of the violence looming on the outside of those walls they are even all the more confined there.

[I haven’t been able to dig up any interesting info on this thing, I'm still searching though. If anyone out there has some scoop on this particular vessel, or any similar such scenarios, please contact me. I would appreciate it greatly!]

Some interesting comments appeared at the bottom of this link which seem too important in my own ignorance not to mention. Stevie Robbo, from Manchester writes:

“That’s one of the reasons how it’s cheaper to employ foreign workers. By NAECI (National Agreement for the Engineering Construction Industry) agreement, which governs wages on these sites, all employees are paid a set hourly rate for craftsmen, labourers etc have another predetermined rate of pay.
British workers would get an accommodation allowance of approx £200 to cover accommodation, food etc. plus travel expenses.
The employers house these workers in cheap accommodations, saving at least 50% and usually drive them over in coaches or vans, again saving on individual travel costs.
No British worker would accept living in these conditions, nor should they, but these immigrant workers are so desperate for the work that they accept this.
Typically, from my own personal experience working on construction sites, immigrant workers will also accept a lower standard of safety at work. I have seen them traveling around site in the backs of vans, no seats, laden with tools and construction materials etc., in flagrant breach of health and safety regulations.”

While UK laborers bark about equal opportunity and contract fairness (and perhaps spew some racist vitriol in the process) there is the greater undercurrent of geo-economic exploitation here bobbing spaces of injustice on the surface. Particularly eerie to me in this picture is the spatial intermixing of incarceration and migrant labor, and how architecturally speaking the surplus of global capital's industrial bodies are rounded up at sea inside the old remains of an overcrowded penal system, once oceanic jails now filled with a new kind of transient inmate, a new kind of quasi-prison labor force.
Is it the prison industrial-complex and the floating populations of globalization's labor excess passing the baton in some sort of spatial relay? -- the recycling of old prison architecture for the expansion of labor marketplace exploitation?
If anything, the barges give these corporations the flexibility now to scoop up hundreds or even thousands of desperate workers like these stranded in an Italian warehouse, and provide a bare bones option for shipping and housing them to and from construction sites all over -- like the cargo industry of human labor.

[Image: Warehouse a home for Italy's migrants, BBC.]

They're floating labor camps, seabound slums, theoretically tolerable migrant housing “converted” out of old prison barges.
But, one can only wonder, what “converted” actually means here, and what defines "tolerable." By the sounds of it, perhaps a few locks have been taken off the doors, a few bars removed from the cabin (cell) windows, but essentially, from what I can tell, the rest is what you might still imagine.
All of which naturally conjures wretched images of slave ships from the colonial era swarming the coasts of the frontier, and begs some very basic questions here: what are the regulations around reusing or “converting” prison barges into suitable housing? What are the health standards that apply to such floating migrant camps? What constitutes appropriate compensation for their work? Are they protected by any certain safety guarantees? Is there any political agency to act on their behalf? How are these labor barges governed internationally if they operate as a sea-based entity, perhaps domiciled outside the boundaries of formal juridical sovereignty? I mean, I don't know. What is the oversight for this type of practice, if any?
Is this the abhorrent future of global labor? Or, more accurately, is this the abhorrent contemporary? Global contracting firms profitting off the benefits of indefinite prison barge leases, sailing to wherever there is a demand to undercut the subcontracting labor markets with cheap resource that technically belongs to no country but rather now to a multinational company, where international law is perhaps somehow circumvented by floatillas of sublegal worker camps perpetually cruising beyond the horizons of legal scrutiny?
Of course, I am utterly unschooled on labor law, so, you'll have to bare with my ignorance – maybe there is an apparatus of protection that applies to these workers once they set foot on shore, but if the nomadic fortress ever decided to overtly get into the business of supplying migrant labor coupled with its venture in refugee interdiction and naval deportation, then obviously the ground work has already been firmly laid.


Blogger Webstar said...

Thank you for this piece. I have been wondering what that vessel was since it is in the press as an addition to the workers' strike story. I think this warrants more investigation. I hope your story can get picked up, there must be some law breaking involved in housing and treating people as such. If only those on the pickets lines would see the real enemy here and realize that those men (and women?) can be their allies.

2:35 PM  
Blogger cortana said...

That's not a prison barge, but a berthing barge. Those aren't secure windows, and no 'prison' would have ones so large and unprotected. The walls of that are heavy-gauge sheet metal, not armorplate.

I lived on a barge almost identical to this while I was in the US Navy and my ship was in the shipyards for overhaul. The rooms weren't huge but they were comfortable, and we had a lounge area outside each 'pod' of 4 rooms.

We bought the barge from the British, who had used it during the Falklands War as military housing. We towed it to Philadelphia from Argentina and refitted it at the dock in Philly. I saw it when it got there, and it certainly was no prison ship to start with.

Even the author states he doesn't know any details about this barge. I think it's premature to read something into it without knowing anything about it.

6:10 AM  
Blogger Brutally Honest said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

9:04 AM  
Blogger Stephen said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

3:15 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

And even more inconveniently, the Italian workers are permanently employed (and the company that won the contract were apparently chosen because they did not employ contractors), whilst the British workers are demanding the right to work as sub-contractors, i.e. they are demanding the right to take the jobs under worse conditions than the foreigners! What a mess.

3:28 PM  
Blogger Subtopia said...


Firstly, I can appreciate and respect your experience having served on “an almost identical barge” (berthing, or whatever), but I would also ask you -- what do you really know about this specific barge in question? Anything concrete?
What do you know about the history of prison hulks, barges, converted ships, etc. or otherwise in general? You act like you are an expert, when all it really sounds like is that you once served on a barge bought from the British used for military housing that you in your own judgment found acceptable. You can’t possibly expect to speak for this situation, can you?

The picture of this one itself is from Getty images, and according to the Financial Times it is the same one being used to house the workers. So, are you really even looking at the actual barge, or the one FT tells us is the actual barge? We don’t know, do we.

According to them, it once was used as a prison barge. Some of the UK prison barges back in the day (like the HMP Weare - have open windows, by the way. I have seen photos of this close up. It, too, was originally an old military barracks for troops built in the 1980’s, then converted into a prison ship but but was closed down in 2006 due to its wretched conditions: no access to clean water, no exercise space, etc.

My point being, in this case just because it was used as military housing previously does not make it some sort of tolerable model for housing anyone else for that matter, even prisoners, as the British government so decided in the case of the Weare. You might have lived on something similar, but big deal! Aside from the structure itself, the other half of the equation is how it is managed. And that is where my line of questioning came from: if someone wants to take old prison barges or military barracks and use them as worker housing on docks, what are the regulations around maintaining the health standards of that structure?

You make a lot of assumptions about this ship based on your one experience with military housing on barges. You have no idea what kind of shape the boat in this story is kept in, how it has been managed, what condition its facilities are kept in, etc.
If the UK government couldn’t see fit to use the HMP Weare (old converted military barracks built in the 80’s) for adequate prison space, then what makes you think this barge must be acceptable?

Further, the ship in the photo looks similar to a Dutch barge that is used to detain migrants and asylum seekers. And look, it detains AND has windows! However, to the Dutch’s credit, they have designed something that sounds a lot more humane.

Before you go on about your naval experience and how it must offer some superior information here get a bit more sense of the bigger picture, what has actually been used before for prison housing on water before you assume anything (much less the tolerability) of the ship mentioned in this story.

Beyond, that floating prisons exist, and are being used today around the world, in the forms of floating warehouses, island prisons, old repurposed ships, barges, etc. Many have been recycled from other uses (military, industrial), and many once they have been retired from their prison use are being examined again for other purposes, as we see in the case here. It is not wrong for me to want to look deeper into this situation, and the legal/ethical/human rights standards that are allowing this barge to be used this way.
I am simply looking for the overarching regulations that might make sure the barge is kept up to a viable health code. And, as I have already explained, similar barges have not in the past.


I am sorry, you seem even more naïve than Corona because not only do you know nothing about the situation, you are willing to go by someone’s else’s blogger comment about their own experience (of which we can only take with a proper grain of salt as well, if we are reasonably skeptical), and then have the nerve to tell someone else if they don’t know what they are talking about to just keep quiet. You are truly hilarious!

You say, “You ever lived in a university dorm room? Put that same room on a ship and that's what you've got here.” How do you know that to be the case – you walk down there today and go look for yourself? Have you looked onboard yourself? You have as little idea about what you are talking about as I do. And I even said I know nothing certain about this situation. I never said they were slaves, only pointed out that the intermixing of old floating prison ships and new labor housing in times of harsh economy and what sounds like contracting monopolization (and more than likely an exploitation of the market – or else why would the UK workers be upset), is alarming.
And shouldn’t we be examining this practice further? Why are you so defensive against my investigation? Why wouldn’t you want there to be transparency and scrutiny here?

4:12 PM  
Blogger Stephen said...

"And shouldn’t we be examining this practice further? Why are you so defensive against my investigation? Why wouldn’t you want there to be transparency and scrutiny here?"

I await your investigation then, until that point I'm just going to get out of here. I've never been on a prison ship but I've seen the pictures. The Sun (a British newspaper) did a report on it in roughly December 2007. It had a photo of all things.

4:23 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

If this were happening in Canada, ourBritish Columbia Federation of Labour would be on it-the courts here recently awarded back wages to migrant workers who were hired at a substandard rate of money to work on the Canada Line, a grossly mismanaged megaproject to create a subway-like line between our airport in Vancouver and the downtown, just in time for all those Olympic tourists in 2010. I'm disappointed that Britain, as arguably the birthplace of the union movement, displays the anger and bigotry of another century minus the social justice of the present.

7:51 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


there is quite a lot of information on the basis to the wildcats on both the socialist worker website, and the discussion boards. The discussion board for the construction industry - bearfacts - also has numerous discussions. It's quite a complex picture with regards to class composition and peoples positions. Interestingly, the local nationalist party [BNP] was chased off a number of picket lines by the strikers, and a number of the strike committees put out 'internationalist' public positions. Ultimately though, it is clear enough that the strikes were about collective power – the power to decide what work is done, how quickly and when.

I've put a few of the more interesting links up here -

As regards migration and movement more generally, it’s important to note the role of the European Court of Justice in the process. The rulings that allow for, what is in effect, the attack on union negotiates agreements are the Laval-Viking rulings. The have been interpreted different in different European countries, but effectively they alter the balance of power with regards to the flow of labour. Constructions workers in Europe often move from country to country and often enjoy strong terms and conditions because of the remaining union power in the industry. These ruling reverse that and in place of labour freely moving with union protection we have capital moving labour to undermine union protection.

One last thing – one of the more interesting points of the strikes were that there are laws in place to stop this sort of thing happening, but they weren’t used and the strikes weren’t repressed. The governments response was to try for containment via racist politics and, simultaneously, refusing to engage with the strikers because they were racist. That is, to use both ends of the racist stick. That it ultimately failed as a strategy is interesting and means that we can expect bolder wildcats in the future.

7:47 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Two points for you to consider: one is a matter of the past, and the unseen present in plain view; the other is an unpleasant distortion of a sense of grievance that is far, far less to do with xenophobia than you might have been led to believe.

Firstly: I recognise that barge! Or at least, a barge very similar to it: they were used in the 1980's as worker accommodation in a massive construction project to build a sort of Manhattan-on-Thames on the derelict London docklands.

This was in the 'Auf Wiedersehen, Pet' days, when redundant labour from the shipyards, collieries, factories and foundries of Northern Britain's rustbelt worked as gastarbeiters on the building sites of Germany - low-cost labour rented in to do the jobs that local workers in a prosperous economy could not be paid enough to do.

...A bit like London, a place where the locals all had better-paid jobs, and 'gastarbeiter' came to mean a floating population of cheap labour from the North, living in transient accommodation - they would never, ever earn enough to to live in London - and returning home at weekends.

Or whenever they had the money.

Or sometimes never, if their tools were stolen, or the building company went bust, and unlucky workers were left on the streets: another population of the homeless in London's shadow world of 'cardboard City' shanty towns.

Foreigners in their own country, reduced to conditions all-too-similar to the shanties and the worker camps you've illustrated in those photographs from Italy.

Have I digressed from your discussion of the 'prison barge'? Not really: the barge was chartered by the Prison Service (or some privately-contracted part of it) when the Docklands building boom was over, and there were fewer gastarbeiters looking for accommodation.

What goes around, comes around: the accommodation barges have gone back to honest work, accommodating prisoners of economic disadvantage - a role that land-based dormitories and shanty towns will soon be taking up for Englishmen abroad, seeking any work that they can get when the construction industry in Europe leads us out of the depression, like it did a quarter of a century ago.

They might even find themselves aboard the very barges that their fathers lived in, building Lehman Brothers' glass-and-concrete monument to bankruptcy on Heron Quay, London E14.

And my second point, about the xenophobia?

The anger among English workers isn't simple hatred of the foreigner - many of them have worked overseas, and all of them have worked alongside Poles and other migrant workers - it is resentment of the way that local men were coldly and deliberately excluded from consideration for these jobs.

It's not a 'foreigner' issue, it's a fairness issue. And, as such, it is a far more dangerous issue: a better class of men, with a better class of motivation than ignorance and fear inflamed by racist demagogues, have raised their voices and their hands against this unjust and exploitative high-handedness.

Alas, I fear that nothing will come of it: in the absence of a Labour government that works for labour, the best of them will vote, as ever, with their feet... And end up in shanties and 'accommodation barges' of their own, on land or floating on the Elbe, the Danube, or the Baltic.

11:11 AM  
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11:56 PM  

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