Issue 269 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published December 2002 Copyright © Socialist Review

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TANKER DISASTER

Trouble on oiled waters

The 'Prestige' meets its warery end
The Prestige meets its warery end

Back in the 1970s, tanker owner Aristotle Onassis was the richest man in the world, and as infamous a personification of big capital as Bill Gates is today. Many other shipowners wanted a slice of his action, and the world is now living with the results, often in the form of beaches and seas covered with thick black sludge.

The Prestige--which broke up off the north west coast of Spain last month--was just one of many vessels mass produced in Japan during the spectacular over-ordering seen at the time. So was the Erika, which sank off the coast of Britanny in late 1999, losing 30,000 tonnes of oil in the process. So was the Braer, cause of a devastating 85,000 tonne spill off the Shetland Islands in 1993. So was the Aegean Sea, which grounded in almost the same Spanish waters as Prestige a decade ago, gushing out 74,000 tonnes of crude. The regularity of such occurrences points to something beyond bad luck.

These ships are all products of Japan's emerging shipbuilding industry of 30 years ago, geared to churning out technically unsophisticated vessels as quickly and cheaply as possible. Internationally agreed regulatory standards of the day were met, but only just. To keep costs down, steel thickness was often cut to the minimum permissible. Yet many of them still trade. Pre-1980 Japanese vessels make up around 300 of the 1,800-strong world oil tanker fleet.

Some tankers are even older. Although merchant ships are designed to last 20-25 years, a considerable minority of owners happily work vessels for as long as they find willing charterers. Tankers dating back to the 1950s are still out there.

Last year the International Maritime Organisation--a notoriously bureaucratic United Nations agency--was stung by the threat of unilateral action from the European Union into ordering the phase-out of single hull tankers of the Erika or Prestige type. Gradually they will be replaced with vessels based on the more recent double hull design, undoubtedly better able to resist impacts.

But owners pleaded that they built ships to the standards applicable at the time of construction, and that their early demise would penalise them unfairly. Moreover, an immediate ban would have crippled the oil industry's ability to move its product around the planet. Few governments dare risk upsetting the oil majors.

Under the resultant compromise, older single hulled tankers will go between 2003 and 2007; Prestige, for instance, could not have traded beyond 2005. Yet other single hull tankers that meet certain anti-pollution standards will still be afloat as late as 2015. The upshot is that few vessels will be scrapped before they would probably have gone to the breaker's yard anyway. In the meantime, single hull oil tankers continue to make up the majority--around 60 percent, in fact--of the world fleet. Nor will double hull ships eliminate future accidents. Maritime history--from the Titanic to the Derbyshire--is littered with examples of the finest vessels of their day succumbing to the elemental powers of the sea. Also, naval architects point to the theoretical danger of gas build up between the two skins, which could result in an explosion.

Meanwhile, substandard ships continue to hide behind the flag of convenience system. Often it is impossible to establish who controls a ship registered to a brass plate company in Panama or Liberia, deemed legally to be owned by whoever is carrying the so called 'bearer shares'. Where ownership cannot be established, law cannot effectively be enforced.

The International Transport Workers' Federation (ITF) deserves credit for its 50-year campaign against flags of convenience. Yet despite such efforts, almost all western shipowners now register in the Third World, benefiting from massive tax breaks and deregulated labour standards. In the process, they have sacked European and North American crews and replaced them with Filipinos, Indians, Eastern Europeans and Chinese nationals, willing to work for a fraction of their predecessors' salaries. Paradoxically, payment in hard currency makes even these pay packets worth a fortune in their home countries, with seafarers often reluctant to organise effectively for fear of losing lucrative employment. In some cases, their unions are little more than de facto employment agencies, completely in the shipowners' pockets.

Where ITF-affiliated dockers were once able to black unsafe ships, the employers' offensive of recent years--smashing the TGWU in ports such as Liverpool and Tilbury--has largely put a stop to this rudimentary form of workers' control. Although governments mount some safety inspections, few countries meet the target of checking one vessel in four calling in their ports. In Britain, resources for surveyors have been considerably cut back under New Labour. Capitalism and shipping safety evidently mix like, well...oil and water.
David Osler


BETWEEN THE LINES

  • One of our missiles is missing, or a whole pallet of them to be exact. The MOD's privatised research company QinetiQ (owned by the Carlyle Group, European chair: John Major) was supposed to destroy a pallet of unwanted warheads under water in the Bristol Channel. But they didn't bank on the strong spring tides, which ripped the explosives off their mooring never to be seen again.

  • The Russian space programme is in crisis, reports Pravda, as the authorities struggle to find people who want to be cosmonauts. The Russian economic crisis means they have to 'boldly go' for only £200 a month.

  • Need a new car? Then head for Argentina where the IMF-sunk local currency is so worthless that DaimlerChrysler is prepared to accept harvested grain as payment.

  • Enron crooked E
  • Visitors to Houston can no longer see one of its most famous sights: Enron has removed the crooked 'Big Es' from its offices. 'We're trying to move forward' said a spokesperson. Souvenir hunters will be able to bid for the signs at an auction next month.

  • STUDENT FEES

    No working class children need apply

    Students are fed up with fees
    Students are fed up with fees

    When New Labour proclaims its concern for the low paid it is usually a sign that it's about to attack higher education. In 1997, announcing the scrapping of the student maintenance grant and, contrary to a pre-election pledge, the introduction of tuition fees, we were asked why cleaners should subsidise students. Now, as it plans to renege on last election's manifesto pledge not to introduce top-up fees, higher education minister Margaret Hodge asks, 'should the dustman continue to subsidise the doctor?'

    Behind the rhetoric is an ideological assault on the idea of education as a publicly provided right. Hodge's claim that there is 'no such thing as a free lunch' is a typical expression of this free-market zeal. The most worrying example is the Department of Trade and Industry's consultation on applying Gats--the World Trade Organisation's charter for privatisation--to higher education.

    There are splits even within New Labour about the extent of such plans. Gordon Brown's allies, most vocally Clare Short, favour a graduate tax. She points out that if top-up fees were introduced 'we'd have real two-tier universities and the rich would pay extra fees and go to the classy, elitist universities, rather like the US.' This vision is embraced by the Russell Group, the 'Ivy League' of elite universities, who have most to gain from 'differential' fees. Imperial College has suggested fees of up to £15,000.

    Fees are not just a middle class concern. Students become liable with a total parental income of £23,000. The education system is riven with inequality--now repackaged as 'diversity'--which cumulatively disadvantages children from working class backgrounds. Rather than tackle the disparity of resources, New Labour bemoans the 'low aspirations' of poorer students.

    There is a crisis in university funding because successive governments have widened access without providing the necessary funding, which has dropped by 37 percent per student since 1980. The further encroachment of the market, either in upfront or deferred fees, will exacerbate inequality. A graduate tax may seem a less immediate threat, but it accepts the argument that the state should no longer 'subsidise' students--that redistributive taxation is not an option. A lifelong debt for working class students is not an alternative to the threat of an immediate university toll. Higher tax for the rich is.

    The wave of anti-war occupations that hit the colleges on 31 October has fed into activism against fees. The vice-chancellor of Cambridge University, Sir Alec Broers, was forced to make a statement against top-up fees by a lobby of 2,000 students and the threat of occupation. The attempt to merge Imperial College and University College London--to create a more viable commercial product--collapsed in the face of mass opposition. One thousand students protested at Imperial, and 500 howled down the vice-chancellor at an emergency general meeting in UCL. Such action is vital in developing the resistance to Blair's ongoing war on free education.
    Andrew Stone


    FASCISTS

    Blackburn battling back

    The British National Party (BNP) win in the Mill Hill ward council by-election in Blackburn has shocked and angered people.

    A Blackburn Anti Nazi League (ANL) became active in the course of the election campaign, and a large and confident ANL rally on the Saturday after the election was the start of a sustained campaign to push back the BNP. The Fire Brigades Union acted quickly to produce a joint leaflet with the ANL.

    Mill Hill is an extremely deprived area. The collapse of the Tory vote and their decision to put out a racist leaflet about asylum seekers contributed to the BNP's success. The BNP campaign consisted of attacking asylum seekers and opposed the building of a hostel in the area. The leaflets also stirred up Islamophobia with a photo of the local mosque alongside claims that the 11 September terrorist attacks had been celebrated there.

    It is alarming that the BNP won 32 percent of the vote and has gained its fourth seat in Lancashire. But with 61 percent of the electorate not bothering to vote at all, the numbers that voted BNP remain a small minority and are outnumbered by anti-racists. This means there is the potential to rebuild the left in Blackburn and to stop the Nazis. In nearby Burnley it has been possible to build direct anti-Nazi and anti-racist actions, to build successful and large anti-war activity and to set up a support group for the firefighters. The same is possible in Blackburn.
    Mary Black


    MARTIN'S WEB

    WEAPONS INSPECTORS

    Saddamned if you do...

    How's this for a choice: admit you have weapons of mass destruction--and we bomb you. Or deny that you have such weapons--and we bomb you anyway, because you're lying. These are the options facing Saddam Hussein as UN weapons inspectors return to Iraq. While many around the world might hope that these inspectors will bring peace, the aims of the US and British governments are clear--they mean war sometime very soon.

    The US in particular is desperate to find 'tripwires' which can end the inspections and allow it to bomb with impunity. It plans 60 days and nights of bombing Iraq before a land invasion which will result, it believes, in colonial occupation of the wartorn country. Already it is flying its planes low over the 'no fly zones' in the hope that they will be shot at by the Iraqis and so start a war. The US has already claimed that shots fired at its bombers (acting completely outside of any UN resolution) are a breach of the latest UN resolution. That was even too far-fetched for the British government to support.

    Have no illusions about Jack Straw and Tony Blair, however. They are conscious that opposition to war in Britain is still very high and so they need to couch their language more cautiously than Bush. But they are 100 percent behind this war. While they are holding back public spending in other areas, there are unlimited funds to kill.

    Most Labour MPs went along with a government motion to support the UN resolution in the erroneous assumption that this would bring peace closer. Instead, it strengthens Blair's resolve to go to war and shows his contempt for parliament in refusing to allow the simple question 'for or against war' to be put to the vote.

    The costs of this war will be astronomical. A new report from the US Congress estimates that deploying US troops to Iraq would cost between $9 billion and $13 billion dollars. In addition it would cost $6 billion to $9 billion per month. A postwar occupation of Iraq could run to $4 billion a month.

    Remember that when they tell you the money's not there.

  • National demonstration called by the Stop the War Coalition, 15 February 2003 in London

  • Martin

    The perfect cure

    One of the biggest problems facing users of the internet is viruses. They cause billions of pounds of damage each year. But viruses are not only a big problem--they are also big business. The anti-virus company Sophos detects between 600 and 700 new types of virus a month--and is making serious money from it. Last financial year Sophos's revenue increased by 40 percent--a profit of over $14 million. You can imagine the corporate glee with which it penned a press release www.sophos.co.uk announcing a similar bonanza in 2001, titling it 'Fighting Viruses, Making Profits'!

    While there is no doubt that viruses can cause huge problems, the sensationalism that creeps into anti-virus company press releases and media stories no doubt contributes to an increase in sales. Headlines about the recent Bugbear virus concentrated on how it could allow 'hackers to scan computers for banking details and passwords entered after it arrived'--see the Guardian article at www.guardian.co.uk. In reality, the virus was much more likely to corrupt files and cause network disruption, but hundreds of computers requiring the reinstallation of system files doesn't make for interesting headlines.

    Viruses cause so much damage and spread so quickly because they exploit weaknesses in commonly used software. Once again the finger of blame is pointed towards Microsoft, whose Windows operating system and e-mail packages contain security holes and problems galore for virus writers to exploit. There are many sites dedicated to explaining why Microsoft should be avoided--the 'Reasons to Avoid Microsoft' page at www.lugod.org is particularly good at pointing out problems.

    So if you use e-mail, get yourself some anti-virus software--you don't have to pay for it, as there are a number of free packages available on the web--and make sure you keep it updated. Don't rely on software that came with your PC when you bought it--anti-virus companies often stop supporting older software so that the unhappy user has to fork out more cash in order to protect themselves.
    Martin Empson
    E-mail ideas, suggestions and comments to martinempson@hushmail.com


    EUROPE

    Growing from strength to strength

    French trade unionists recently.
    French trade unionists recently.

    French trade unionists (above) sent a 'social alert' to the right wing government of Jean-Pierre Raffarin recently. Public sector workers, led by striking air traffic controllers, staged a mass demonstration in defence of pensions and wages and against privatisation. The action was mirrored in Italy, where Fiat workers struck to defeat planned job losses, while public sector unions announced strikes for 6 and 13 December over wages and spending cuts.


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