Wednesday, 22 January 2014

Britain's trawler fishing shame intensifies

Fishing remains the most dangerous occupation but the financial rewards can be high. It reflects badly on the industry, therefore, when exploitation of migrant workers on board, many of them Filipinos, is so bad that it equates with modern day slavery. Back in September 2010 this blog site commented on the scandal of Irish fishing vessels using migrant labour, often without pay, and subject to intimidation, including beatings.* Then, on October 2013, I highlighted slavery in Britain's food supply chain, again involving vulnerable foreign labour cowed by threats and beatings from their gangmasters.

Since then the plight of migrant fishermen has worsened, if reports in Britain's Sunday Times are any guide, and there is no reason to suspect otherwise. There is now a wide-scale police investigation into the alleged systematic abuse of migrant fishermen on board Britain's trawlers, many of them scallopers. A probe begun in 2012, involving over 150 police officers scouring the English and Scottish coasts, led to at least 50 suspected victims, mostly Filipinos, being discovered, according to the Serious Organised Crime Agency, and the policeman heading the investigation described that figure as "the tip of the iceberg."

Ten years have passed since the shame of 23 Chinese cockle pickers drowned in Morecambe Bay but the problem of exploited migrant labour has only worsened. Matters may improve when the Modern Slavery Bill is enacted to address the problem but there are no guarantees. It is essential, therefore, that the public should monitor the issue and if little changes then they should consider invoking the ultimate weapon that all boardrooms fear most of all -- concerted, sustained consumer boycott, and the first target should be the scallopers.

It would be a tragedy for all honest fishermen if such action was needed. They have wives and children to support and mortgages to pay and arguably Britain's fishing industry has suffered enough contraction dating back as far as the Icelandic cod wars of the 1970s. But they should remember that it takes only one rotten apple to sour the whole barrel so it is in their best interests to report any suspicious activity involving foreign, migrant fishermen.

Retailers could also help, including top restaurants who sell scallops at huge mark ups. So far, according to the Sunday Times, they have not been cooperative in revealing the names of their dredged scallop suppliers and details of what checks they carried out to ensure workers for those firms are not exploited. Certain TV celebrity chefs with fish restaurants were also uncooperative.

The Filipino authorities could also make a useful contribution to rid the seas of slave-like conditions. The Philippines are by far the largest overseas supplier of merchant seafarers but often the local recruiting agencies trick the potential seamen with adverts for 10-month contracts on container ships paying seven times the average Filipino's monthly income of £126. Job applicants have to pay a £600 deposit and cover their own air fares of about £300. In many cases they would have to borrow the money from the recruiter, with interest, but there would often be no intention of providing work on merchant ships. Instead, migrants would be diverted to work on trawlers once in Britain, where the risks are much higher and life-preserving clothing and equipment not provided. Such a cavalier attitude by skippers would be a blatant breach of Britain's health and safety law.

These local recruiting agencies should be put under 'heavy manners' as Jamaicans would say, including heavy fines and a ban on trading. The same harsh treatment should be meted out to trawler skippers and their owners found guilty of labour abuse, including custodial sentences and forfeiture of vessels.

The problem of migrant labour exploitation on trawlers is a recent one and perhaps would not have arisen so easily, if at all, had their never been the system of no catch, no pay for the fishermen. This has helped to diminish the pool of British trawlermen, even though when catches are good the pay is high. Foreign migrant fishermen, however, would expect a regular, fixed monthly income whether or not there were any worthwhile catches. When catches are poor this could only encourage skippers to refuse pay, a common enough accusation levelled against them, along with beatings and 22 hours work a day. Migrants' passports would also be kept from them, a common ploy used by land-based human traffickers, to prevent escapes and engaging help from the authorities.

The level of deprivation migrant fishermen suffer is painfully long, even stretching to denial of medical help on shore. It beggars belief that pursuit of greed among trawler skippers and owners in a developed, civilized country could exist and thrive through lack of condign punishment. Consumers, especially of scallops, should put the industry under notice to clean out their Augean stables of loathsome practices before there are any more Morecambe Bay tragedies.

* Google my blog: "Ireland's shameful role in migrant fishermen exposed."

Helpful organizations.

Monday, 20 January 2014

China's migrant sorrows must be addressed

Parting is such sweet sorrow, the saying goes, but it also could be very much more and all of it potentially harmful. Nowhere, perhaps, is this more evident than in China where rapid industrialisation is undermining family bonds with incalculable consequences. It could even encompass retrograde logistics, leading to more environmental degradation and serious health issues.

China is a big country, with most of its industrial regions clustered around coastal cities. Logistically that makes good sense for an export-oriented economy that is also heavily dependent on imports. But the success of that logistics model depends on 262 million migrant workers toiling long hours hundreds of miles away from their family homes and children, left behind for relatives to look after. The primal longing of those parents forced to seek work far from home is beginning to threaten China's socio-economic fabric on an unprecedented scale.

It is estimated that about 157 million mothers and fathers are separated from their children, whom they typically see only once a year for 10 days during the Chinese New Year. Some 80% of those migrants, it seems, feel inadequate, guilt and anxiety. This reflects on their work through lack of commitment to their employers, while nearly 40% report making frequent mistakes on the job. Poor product quality is one of the main reasons cited by foreign customers driving them to re-shore their outsourced manufacturing from the Far East back to their own or nearby countries. Such a trend could have serious repercussions for China.

To the product quality issue, however, must now be added a logistics problem. Parental anxiety over their separation from their children accounts for half of the typical 15% annual labour turnover rates in factories, which adds to product quality issues. When surveyed, these parents cited the wish to take better care of their children. The result is that factories are now struggling to keep them adequately staffed and so many factories are relocating to the interior to be closer to their migrant labourers' home towns and therefore an adequate labour pool. That is socially understandable but it means more transport, often over long distances, for finished and semi-fabricated components to ports, either for further manufacturing or export. That has implications for more air pollution in a country where an estimated 500,000 die prematurely from breathing problems.

Such air pollution also seriously hits national output. In Beijing and its environs alone the economy loses between US$19 billion and $39 billion a year owing to the effects of PM 2.5 pollutants. This is not to argue that all production deep inland is logistically harmful in an environmental way. The new rail route from Chongquing that passes through Kazakhstan and Poland to Germany will help companies like HP to slash costs and air pollution. The fact remains, however, that 90% of all foreign trade is sea-borne, the cheapest of all transport modes and least polluting per container moved. There is also still plenty more to go for in cleaning up shipping's foul emissions, particularly sulphur, something now being rectified.

Neglect the children, risk the future

If China's migrant anxieties are not properly addressed then the outlook for their children's future, and ultimately China's social stability, looks grim. Already the estimated 61 million children growing up separated from their parents, making up 20% of China's youth, are dropping out of school in record numbers at very young ages, despite being required to stay in school until 15. A study also shows that sexual abuse by teachers and relatives is also a problem, exacerbated by drug addiction and other criminal behaviour.

These left-behind children usually suffer from trauma and don't do so well ate school. Many parents worry that their children will spend too much time in internet bars exposed to the dark side of the Net. China's greatest asset is its industrious, intelligent people and the people's greatest tool is education. The State, of course, realises this but is some if its actions stymieing its efforts? Many migrants would like to take their children to where the work is but feel there are limits on what kind of life they can give them in the cities. The main culprit is Lukou, the restrictive residency system that means if parents don't have urban residency cards rural children cannot attend city schools without paying exorbitant fees. These fees could be seven times what they would be back in the migrants' inland home towns.

Abolishing lukou could help thwart the build-up of serious social issues. Another is much more direct state investment in education. If money is perceived to be the problem there are solutions. Not least would be the savings that could be made by slashing China's soaring defence bill. Since 2003 China's military budget has soared from $30 billion a year to $120 billion. China has nothing to fear abroad, militarily speaking. The world is too interconnected by trade and finance to make war a feasible hand maiden of foreign policy. This is not to argue that China should not have a military force befitting its size and overseas interests, mindful as it must be of past humiliating defeats over 200 years caused by an ineffective, cohesive defence force. But China should recall the words of one of its illustrious sages, Sun Tzu, 2,400 years ago: "Where the army is prices are high, when prices are high the wealth of the people is exhausted."

If China ever needed an object lesson on how eschewing militarism makes great sense it need look no further than across the China Sea to Japan. Utterly ruined by war in 1945, Japan vowed to abandon militarism for pursuit of trade and succeeded spectacularly at giving the people what they yearned for. China's greatest fears are all internal, neglect of which will only lead to bigger problems. Money spent wisely now on social issues and preparing for inevitable natural disasters, rather than military spending, will likewise satisfy the people's yearnings which they most assuredly deserve. There can be no more potent and truer sign of a great nation in the waiting.


Thursday, 16 January 2014

Warehouses risk energy crisis without changes

Rising energy costs are now so worrying that according to research by Energy Works 98% of those in the UK industrial sector, including warehousing, will not meet their growth targets, while 8% are now considering staff cuts to save money. Just as concerning is that 88% of UK businesses are worried about the security of their energy supply. This follows recent warnings by OFGEM that the UK generating capacity is nearly at full stretch. Given the planned closure of some coal and nuclear power stations, OFGEM is warning that spare capacity could fall from today's 14% level to just 4% in three years, with a risk of 'brown outs' and 'black outs' starting in the winter of 2015-2016. The threat of energy inflation to UK competitiveness is another big worry seen by 90% of UK businesses.

The paradox is that the means are available to cut the energy bill sharply through modest and often financially incentivized investment and while 51% are aware of energy-efficient LEDs, for example, 87% have yet to make the transition. This is all the more curious because, as the research shows, 72% of industrial firms were loath to install clean technology because they believed the initial outlay was too costly and that lighting suppliers were viewed with suspicion when it came to their claims on energy savings, according to findings by the Britain's Carbon Trust.* The facts, however, belie these sentiments, so what are the facts on warehouse energy-saving investments?

Before looking at energy-saving means, however, a look at how big the cost is should concentrate minds to consider action now, rather than, as in Britain, wait until the Energy Act, 2011, enforces warehouses by 2018 to comply or risk closure because their energy proficiency certificates are at or below F or G ratings.

According to US power outfit, Madison Gas and Electric, energy costs can account for as much as 15% of a warehouse's operating budget. A report by Touchstone Energy estimates this can reach as high as 10% of total revenue. In cold stores the energy bill is typically between 25% and 30%. These estimates, of course, will vary from country to country because energy costs vary widely and not all users will need lots of heating throughout the year.

LED lights show the way

If there is one area of warehouse energy costs that almost invariably causes greatest concern it is lighting, which typically accounts for 70% of total energy consumption. For many years lighting devices like dimmers and sensors activated by personnel movement and daylight changes have helped cut costs but now advances in lighting technology, particularly LEDs, are not only drastically cutting energy costs but also maintenance and repairs, as well as improving light quality and cutting accidents. Poorly distributed light and excessive glare from certain lamps can affect 60-year old forklift drivers far more than 20-year olds because they need six times as much light to discern objects clearly.

So what kind of returns on lighting investment can be expected and what investment incentives are available? A programme of site energy surveys commissioned by the Carbon Trust confirmed that quick returns on no and low-cost actions can often provide cost savings of 10% to 20% with a further 10% to 55% per year savings achievable with simple payback periods ranging from one to six years. This could translate to an annual saving of over £200 million for Britain's warehouse sector. To ease the pain of investment in energy- saving lights, the Carbon Trust offers zero per cent interest loans of up to £100,000 for up to four years and will conduct free site surveys to highlight where savings can be made. Other UK government incentives include the Enhanced Capital Allowances which enable businesses to buy energy-efficient equipment using a 100% rate of tax allowance in the year of purchase, provided the equipment is on the Energy Technology list.

There is, however, an alternative that does not involve any cash investment in LEDs. Energy Works, for example, says any industrial firm can take advantage of their free LED retrofit in return for a percentage of the energy savings made over a typical period of five years.

Given the importance of lighting to warehouse energy costs, any stores lit by 250W or 400W SON or metal halide lighting should be considered for a change, and most warehouses appear to use this form of lighting. If such fittings are replaced with fluorescent T5 luminaires they will not only give a better light output and consume less energy they are also amenable to automated controls, such as PIR motion detectors or daylight controls, without any re-strike concerns. If installed with automated controls, T5 consumption costs could reduce SON energy costs, based on 10 hours a day, five days a week, from £1,120 worth of electricity per year to just £220.

The moral imperative

In ambient warehouses the second highest energy cost after lighting is space heating and the worst place for heat loss is usually the loading bay. This is so because frequent traffic movements by lorries and forklifts encourage an open door policy in all weathers. A simple solution that has been available for several decades is the rapid roll PVC door, to which have recently been added insulated slatted versions moving at up to 3 mt/sec and secure enough as an external security door. Another heat loss area is the loading dock where the air gap between docked lorry and open door is excessive. Inflatable dock shelters would solve that problem. Most leading loading bay equipment suppliers will offer a free energy audit when quoting for equipment, which in many cases would show a door payback period of a year or less.

Quite apart from improving warehouse profitability through energy reduction programmes  there is another, incalculable benefit for all mankind. Britain's warehouse sector is responsible for about 10.2 million tonnes of CO2, or 3% of total UK emissions. Research shows that the sector could potentially achieve a 16% cut in emissions mostly form lighting and heating. All around the world asthma rates are soaring among non-smokers and air pollution is top of the list of usual suspects. Where there is no suspicion, however, is that air pollution is now a leading cause of lung cancer. London's air quality is often much poorer than EU-set safety limits while in China at least 500,00 people die prematurely from air pollution every year. In northern Europe alone an estimated 50,000 a year die from cargo ships' sulphur emissions. There is, therefore, a moral imperative for all to be more energy conscious.

LED manufacturers: (wireless controls)