Sweatshops at Sea

Merchant Seamen in the World's First Globalized Industry, from 1812 to the Present

By Leon Fink

288 pp., 6.125 x 9.25, 16 halftones, notes, bibl., index

  • Paperback ISBN: 978-1-4696-1369-7
    Published: February 2014
  • E-book EPUB ISBN: 978-0-8078-7780-7
    Published: March 2011
  • E-book PDF ISBN: 979-8-8908-8452-7
    Published: March 2011

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As the main artery of international commerce, merchant shipping was the world's first globalized industry, often serving as a vanguard for issues touching on labor recruiting, the employment relationship, and regulatory enforcement that crossed national borders. In Sweatshops at Sea, historian Leon Fink examines the evolution of laws and labor relations governing ordinary seamen over the past two centuries.

The merchant marine offers an ideal setting for examining the changing regulatory regimes applied to workers by the United States, Great Britain, and, ultimately, an organized world community. Fink explores both how political and economic ends are reflected in maritime labor regulations and how agents of reform--including governments, trade unions, and global standard-setting authorities--grappled with the problems of applying land-based, national principles and regulations of labor discipline and management to the sea-going labor force. With the rise of powerful nation-states in a global marketplace in the nineteenth century, recruitment and regulation of a mercantile labor force emerged as a high priority and as a vexing problem for Western powers. The history of exploitation, reform, and the evolving international governance of sea labor offers a compelling precedent in an age of more universal globalization of production and services.

About the Author

Leon Fink is Distinguished Professor of History at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
For more information about Leon Fink, visit the Author Page.


"An original, engaging, witty, and, yes, important study of seafarers and their struggle for improved working conditions. . . . This is truly an important book, and a well-written one."--Sea History

"Fink helps us think about the historical roots of these limitations as we strive, as citizens as well as historians, to shape a more humane world."--Journal of American History

"A professional piece of work and a contribution to the field."--Labor

"This book stands as a very successful model of global history."--The Historian

"[Fink] writes with grace, humor and wit, and deftly skewers the academic jargon so many maritime historians use. . . . A polished academic work that will feature prominently at seminar tables and the bookshelves of the learned public as well."--Sea History

"A meaningful contribution to labor and maritime history. . . . The future of maritime workers is hard to see. Their past, however, has never been so clear."--Journal of World History