In the past, seafarers have faced unique employment conditions, where wages and working conditions were determined by custom rather than by the letter of labor law. While shore-based workers have made major gains in living standards, the authors of Maritime Men of the Asia-Pacific claim that even in the twenty-first century, “life at sea for thousands of seafarers is modern slavery” (p. 1).

This book charts the collective activism of seafarers as they struggled for improved legal rights and working conditions from the nineteenth century onwards. It draws on extensive primary and secondary sources and comprises thirteen chapters, numerous illustrations, and (given the use of fifty-seven acronyms) an indispensable list of abbreviations. The emphasis is on the role of Australian unions and their connections with labor unions in the Asia-Pacific region.

In Chapter 3, the authors argue that following the introduction of the White Australia Policy (WAP) in 1901, the activities of the Seaman’s Union of Australia (SUA) and the Waterside Workers’ Federation (WWF), were influenced by racist views on immigration. The SUA, however, adopted a pragmatic attitude to the WAP and was prepared to use it to help prevent Lascars (South Asians) and Chinese crews from undercutting Australian seafarers.

Chapter 4 and subsequent chapters examine the efforts by socialists and maritime unionists in Europe and elsewhere to organize internationally; a major outcome was the formation of the International Transport Workers Federation (ITF) in 1896. But prior to 1914 there were almost no connections between the ITF and emergent Asian labor organisations (p.79). After the First World War, the growth of socialist movements and radicalism led to a “resurgent burst of internationalism” (p. 91). But Australian unions were in an awkward position: they were caught between the WAP, growing concerns about “the yellow peril,” and the desire to support internationalism. Chapters 5 and 6 show that their focus in the interwar years was on regional and local issues. In the 1930s depression unions lacked members and revenue and so joining the ITF was not a priority.

After the Second World War, changes in shipping technology and the emergence of Flag of Convenience (FOC) carriers, employing cheap labor from developing countries, reduced employment opportunities for maritime workers. Dockworkers were the biggest losers from technological change because containerization transformed port work from a manual labor-intensive activity employing thousands of workers to a capital-intensive operation employing fewer but more highly skilled workers. These changes weakened the position of the unions, and in 1970 the WWF decided to join the ITF, but the SUA held off joining until the 1980s. In 1993 the SUA and WWF faced the new reality and merged to form the Maritime Union of Australia (MUA).

A major strength of Maritime Men of the Asia-Pacific is the coverage given to the emergence of unionism among Asian maritime workers. Before the Second World War, with the partial exception of Indian and Japanese unions, the ITF had limited success in forging links with Asian workers: it remained a Euro-centric organization. The situation after the Second World War was complicated by the outbreak of the Cold War, with tension between communists and non-communists in the union movement. The ITF adopted an anti-communist stance in the late 1940s, but until the 1960s both the SUA and WWF were led by communists and acquired a reputation for industrial militancy.

In Chapter 11, the authors show how even though Australian unions actively supported the ITF’s campaign against poor wages and working conditions on FOC vessels, their interests sometimes diverged from those of Asian trade unions. Seafarers’ rights were eventually encoded in the ILO Maritime Labour Convention of 2006; by 2020, ninety-six countries, covering 90 percent of the world’s shipping, had ratified the Convention.

In conclusion, this book offers valuable new insights into the role of Australian maritime unions in the international labor movement and their connections with labor unions in the Asia-Pacific region. It is clear that international union cooperation was often a challenging process, complicated by international politics, regional tensions, war, racism, and even personal rivalries. A minor surprise is that the authors did not draw on Stuart Macintyre’s The Life and Times of Paddy Troy (1984), a valuable biography of a militant West Australian union leader. However, Maritime Men of the Asia-Pacific is a worthy edition to Liverpool University Press’s Studies in Labour History, and I highly recommend it to all readers interested in labor history.

Malcolm Tull
Murdoch University