Global Shipbuilding

In the Same Boat?

Shipbuilding and ship repair workers: a global labour history (1950-2010)

Shipbuilding Amsterdam, 1949The project intends to study shipbuilding labour around the world from World War II until the present from a global history perspective. We will track the relocation of production and analyse its consequences to workforces in Europe, North and South America, and in East Asia from the 1980s onwards.

The project is coordinated by Raquel Varela, Elise van Nederveen Meerkerken and Marcel van der Linden

Among the many reasons for studying shipbuilding labour, is the importance of this industry to transportation and world trade, steel industry, its relationship with military defence, and its productive character. Shipbuilding is essentially an assembly industry and therefore one which newly industrializing countries [NICs] find attractive. In the initial stages of setting up a shipbuilding industry in a NIC, State-supported companies can import advanced technology and expertise, and direct labour to suitable locations.
As an "industry of synthesis" shipbuilding is an important customer of the steel industry and, as the industry grows, it requires specific qualifications from its workforce. In western economies the shipbuilding labour force was originally fragmented but, over time, unionisation grew in line with the division of labour. Forms of apprenticeship were introduced and the workforce generally was split up into task-specific trades.
As international competition began to bite in the late 1970s shipyards in Western Europe began to close. In the UK the bulk of the industry was nationalized in 1977 only to be broken up and privatized from 1984 onwards. Sweden, often seen by commentators as a real competitor to Japan in shipbuilding, abandoned the industry all together in the 1980s. Clustering of firms in particular locations is a feature of shipbuilding; thus the impact of closures and subsequent unemployment had a dramatic impact on closely knit communities where the industry had historically been the major employer.
Although State control of shipbuilding in the UK was not successful, it was arguably too little and too late in any event. State support of shipbuilding and ship repairing elsewhere - in Japan, South Korea, Brazil, Singapore, Portugal, Spain, France, Netherlands, Norway, Finland, Vietnam and China -proved vital. In many cases States were either direct producers or regulators of industrial activity and, crucially, for reasons initially of economic nationalism, provided either direct finance to companies or subsidized them through loans, grants or other financial incentives including taxation. Globalization implied relocation of production to areas of low cost labour and/or outsourcing of particular activities such as steelwork.

The project aims to make a comparative analysis of labour relations, labour conditions, composition of the workforce, workers' recruitment, workers living conditions, labour cultures, labour conflicts, organization and leadership, shifts in production, the role of shipyards in national and international economy, governments policies and regulations and the social and economic effects of closures of shipyards. Research sources will be local, regional and national records of shipyard employers and shipyard unions, business records of individual firms, government records pertaining to the industry, local and national press and other media, interviews with government ministers, owners, managers and workers, and results of various surveys.
The proposal is a global labour history project, under the initiative of the International Institute for Social History, following the approach of earlier comparative studies on the history of dock workers and on the history of textile workers (Davies et al. 2000; Heerma van Voss 2010). The model will be the Collective Research Model as published in the Prolegomena for a Global Labour History, p. 21.