9. Transnationalism of Merchant Seafarers and their Communities in Kiribati and Tuvalu

Maria Borovnik

Table of Contents

Kiribati and Tuvalu
Placing Seafarers in the Concept of Transnationalism
Movements and Networks of Pacific People
Seafarers and their Homeland: Examples from Kiribati


Seafarers cannot be immediately recognised as contributing to the transnationalism of their home countries. Criss-crossing internationalised, de-nationalised and national waters during their employment on merchant vessels and living with multi-national crews, seafarers could rather be seen in many ways as pioneers of global citizenship.[1] Despite the dynamic of their employment and the transversal and circulating movement between home and shipboard communities, seafarers from Kiribati and Tuvalu still maintain strong links to their families and cultures at home. These family and cultural connections include regular remittances, money sent back home, but also in exchange the reception of culturally meaningful material from families, and the maintenance of activities and memories while working on ships, connects seafarers to their homes. This chapter adopts a framework that considers transnationalism as a dynamic, multi-dimensional and multi-inhabited space.

Recruitment of Pacific seafarers working for international merchant vessels had for a long time a rather informal touch. The British owned China Navigation company (now Swires, UK, based in Hong Kong), for example, recruited men from the Gilbert and Ellice Island colony since 1959 (Connell 1983, 33), originally for their transport ships between Nauru, Tarawa and Funafuti, and then by manning their international merchant ships with men from the same region. This informal and on-the-job trained recruitment changed, however, significantly in 1966 when the German Hamburg Süd Dampfschiffahrtsgesellschaft (HSDG or Hamburg Süd) discovered employment opportunities on the shores of Tarawa (Sieg 1999).

The discovery of recruiting opportunities in the central Pacific was followed by the construction of marine training facilities on Betio, Tarawa (Marine Training Centre or MTC),[2] and after a number of successful deployments onboard German and British vessels, the HSDG decided to establish a recruitment agency in 1969, consisting of a conglomeration of German and British shipping companies, that would make the international employment of young I-Kiribati[3] and Tuvaluan men possible. It was only about ten years after the establishment of SPMS that first Tuvalu in 1978 and then Kiribati in 1979 became independent from the former British Protectorate. Already in early years, the British based shipping company had left SPMS, and the agency consisted from then on of German shipping companies only.[4] SPMS facilitated signing up of men to their vessels under exceptional national German agreements.[5]

After independence, Tuvalu opened its own marine school, which is now the Tuvalu Maritime Training Institute (TMTI) on Amatuki Island of Funafuti atoll; and a Funafuti based recruitment office, which is now the Tuvalu Marine Service (TMS). Only a few years later, independently from SPMS/TMS, a German company decided to recruit Tuvaluans only through the Alpha Pacific Navigation Limited (APNL) agency. Kiribati’s options for employment of seafarers also extended, when a conglomerate of Japanese tuna companies decided in 1989 to invest in training and recruitment of men on fishing vessels. Since 2002 employment on Norwegian cruise liners has become possible for men and, since 2003, for women working aboard in catering services. The SPMS has recently taken a leap of faith when under relatively strict pre-conditions and safety measures, the first I-Kiribati women seafarers have been trained in 2005 as cooks and stewards and recruited onboard merchant vessels.

The development in training and recruitment facilities in Kiribati and Tuvalu, can be seen as a reflection of the entry of the shipping industry into globalisation in the late 1960s and beginning 1970s. These early initiations were followed by a rapid development of merchant shipping as a multinational and international industry, characterised by a progression into ‘internationalising’ crews, management and ship nationality. It is true today that merchant multinational crews are under multinational management, registered under special ‘de-nationalised’[6] agreements on ships with international flags, traversing through international and de-national maritime space (Borovnik 2004, Lane 1999; Sampson 2003). It can be argued that within this complex and highly competitive global system it is the maintenance of strong cultural identities and values, together with the acceptance of mobility as a means of network activities of family or community members, and the responsibility of sending remittances to their home countries, that have led to the successful and ongoing participation of I-Kiribati and Tuvaluan seafarers for almost forty years.

The recruitment history, however, also reflects on the division of the two world-systems that Germany and Kiribati/Tuvalu symbolise, and also the economic aspects of such relationships that accompanied the globalisation process of the shipping industry. There were, and still are, significant levels of unemployment and low economic resources in Kiribati and Tuvalu, which made it possible for old and well established European companies to offer employment contracts that would be attractive for Tuvalu and Kiribati and lucrative for their own management. In doing so, managers of HSDG emphasised both their economic interest and their concern in helping to develop small countries in the Pacific. Hence, the establishment of marine training facilities first on Tarawa, and then later on Funafuti ensured a high standard of employment for I-Kiribati and Tuvaluan seafarers. The provision of good training, nowadays based on international Standards of Training Certification and Watchkeeping (STCW), has resulted from what Lane (1999, 24) describes as ‘values of pride in craft’. Long established shipping companies desired links between strong nation based values of employment standards with ‘mundane rituals and symbols’ of ‘organically linked’ shipboard societies, and hence sustained ‘an occupational culture’ even though members of these societies had become multinational (Lane 1999, 23f). This aspect of ‘pride in craft’ can still be found in the attitudes of some of the older or retired I-Kiribati and Tuvaluan seafarers today, especially those that are now working onshore, in marine training institutions, or for recruitment agencies.[7]

As a result of deregulation processes and structural changes in the shipping industry, ‘there are at any one time approximately one million seafarers aboard ships, operating in international ports and waters, who live and work in communities which are multinational and which exist beyond national boundaries’ (Sampson 2003, 260, emphasis in original). Elsewhere I have discussed the combination of sharing a work environment that involves travelling through waters of different national or de-national regulations, and in such a confined space as a vessel, as a reality on the ‘edges’ of transnationality (Borovnik, 2003, 2004; and see Sampson, 2003; Yeoh et al, 2003). The long established rituals and links between shipboard communities, employers and merchant seafarers create transnational communities in a wider sense, when we adopt a framework that includes dynamic circulating spaces and when we include the regular maintenance of strong links and activities between international seafarers and their home countries.

This paper is based mainly on extended information gathered on Kiribati through six months fieldwork in 1999, where a total of 136 individual interviews and six focus groups were conducted on Tarawa and two outer islands with seafarers, their wives, parents and family members, village elders, both men and women, government officials, managers and employees of recruitment agencies, union leaders, women’s groups, church leaders, medical personnel, and others. Some of these interviews were interpreted by local field assistants. Some of this qualitative information, and remittances data, was then updated by two subsequent short visits to Kiribati in 2004 and 2006, and a few days in Tuvalu in 2006.

I will, in the following section, provide brief background information on Kiribati and Tuvalu and then place this chapter into the framework of transnationalism, by linking it with seafarers and with mobility in the Pacific. Transnational frameworks discuss the nation state as significant, but in the context of Pacific seafarers a more dynamic concept must become the key unit of analysis, linking directly to the concept of family. This argument will then be illustrated by relating it to seafarers from Kiribati.

[1] Some team members of the Seafarers International Research Centre (SIRC; for more information see http://www.sirc.cf.ac.uk/) in Cardiff have suggested that seafarers are pioneers of global citizens or can be regarded as global villagers (eg. Lane 1999, Wu 2002);

[2] This was originally the Marine Training School (MTS)

[3] Note that I-Kiribati means coming from or belonging to Kiribati

[4] The SPMS office explained in 2006, that currently six companies are involved.

[5] It was only in the 1980s that Germany introduced its official foreign ship register

[6] The term de-national refers to ‘deterritorialised’ spaces and/or actions; in other words those that operate ‘beyond’ national boundaries (see also Sampson 2003: 260).

[7] Training facilities for both domestic and international merchant seafarers are available throughout the Pacific. Fiji and PNG offer excellent quality training for international ratings and officers, Vanuatu, Samoa, Tonga, and the Solomon Islands also are involved in training especially for international ratings and domestic officers. The largest numbers, however are being provided by Kiribati, followed by Tuvalu and Fiji.