Since the late 1990s, articles in trade papers for the maritime industry have reported that China’s seafarer export would increase remarkably (Lloyd’s Ship Manager 1999; Lloyd’s List 2000, 2008, Zhao 2017). This conclusion is supported in the academic literature and BIMCO/ISF (1995), which estimated that China’s seafarer export would increase to more than 89,000 by 2000 and to 104,000 by 2005. Li and Wonham (1999) evaluated the report of BIMCO/ISF (1995) and argued that BIMCO/ISF had underestimated China’s export of its seafarers in the 2000s, and that it could supplant the Philippines as the largest supplier of global seafaring labour (1999, 299).
Having evaluated the advantages (i.e. huge population of seafaring labour, good training infrastructure and the availability of alternative occupational opportunities) and the disadvantages (i.e. weak English and low occupational tenure) of China as a labour market, Sharma (2002) predicted that China would emerge as the new leader of the global seafaring labour market. Wu et al. (2006) also predicted the substantial increase of China’s seafarer export after considering two issues. They deemed that the emergence of the hundreds of crewing agencies in the market would open new channels for Chinese seafarers to work on board foreign ships (Wu et al. 2007) and predicted that they would flood the world’s seafarer labour market due to the attractions of working in foreign shipping companies, such as better pay (Wu 2004; Wu et al. 2006, 2007).
However, in 2000 and 2005, only 38,164 and 41,260 Chinese seafarers, respectively, worked in the global labour market, representing 42.8% and 39.7% of the numbers predicted by BIMCO/ISF (Bao and Liu 2008, p. 380). China has been ranked as the 4th/5th largest country in terms of maritime manpower supplyFootnote 1 in the world since the 2000s but represented approximately one fourth/fifth of the seafarer export from the Philippines both in the 1990s and the 2000s (Bao and Liu 2008; POEA 2018). In 2013, the Philippines, exported 367,166 seafarers which was more than three times higher than the 119,316 seafarers supplied by China (MSA 2014; POEA 2018). In 2017, 378,072 seafarers were exported by the Philippines and China dispatched 138,854 seafarers, representing 36.5% of the number of the Filipino seafarers working in the global labour market (MSA 2018; POEA 2018).
In consideration of this overestimation, a few researchers incline to a cautious analysis of Chinese seafarer export. Shen et al. (2005), Zhao (2000, 2002), and Tang et al. (2016) discuss the reform of China’s seafarer labour market and analyze the potential constraints on the development of seafarer export, such as the development of the social security system, the English-speaking ability of Chinese seafarers and the complex dynamics of the world seafarers’ labour market.
Whatever the assumptions and expectations, previous studies have focused on the export of Chinese seafarer labour while neglecting to analyze the ways in which crewing agencies operate and the extent to which crewing agencies have reformed into market-oriented economic entities that play a central role in providing labour to the global market. This gives rise to a number of elementary questions:
To what extent can SCAs determine their own business strategy?
To what extent are managers actively involved in improving and reforming management strategies?
What specific management methods are applied by the crewing agencies?
What are the consequent impacts on seafarers and on foreign manning businesses?
Answering these questions is critical when seeking to understand seafarer recruitment and employment in China and may contribute to a better understanding of the historic overestimates of China’s seafarer export.
Given the lack of systematic evidence in the literature on these and related questions, the chapter seeks to explore the questions through an analysis of 54 semi-structured and 32 in-depth interviews conducted with 22 managers and 50 seafarers between 2008 and 2013 in two Chinese SCAs (hereinafter referred to as SA and IA; for more details please refer to Tables 3.1 and 3.2). The interview questions were varied in accordance with the different positions of the interviewees. Each interview lasted at least one hour and was voice-recorded. The crewing agencies in the case studies have reformed to different degrees. They represent the largest examples of two types of Chinese crewing agency that dominate seafarer labour export. The study of the agencies allows an evaluation of the operations of the most important players in the Chinese seafaring labour market.
Before looking at the case studies, the chapter provides some macro level social and economic background by overviewing the reform of the Chinese economy, the seafarer labour market and ship crewing agencies.