Sailors – Cosmopolitans or Locals? Occupational identity of sailors on ships in international trade

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Sailors – Cosmopolitans or Locals?

Occupational identity of sailors on ships in international trade

Dorte Østreng1

Abstract: This paper explores the content and character of workers occupational identity in a highly global workplace, or more exactly occupational identity of sailors of different ethnic, cultural and national groups working together on ships in international trade. Despite the fact that these ships represent a global working environment, the occupational identity of Norwegian and Filipino sailors seems to be locally constructed. In general, the main object of this paper is to examine the impact of a global or transnational workplace on individual work motivation and work behaviour. How globalisation and identity interrelates in general will therefore also be discussed. However, the main aim is to describe and compare how Norwegian and Filipino sailors see their work and perceive public attitudes as sailors, and to discuss possible causes and consequences of having different work behaviour and work motivation when working together in the same global working environment. This paper will show that being a sailor has completely different connotations when comparing Norwegian and Filipino sailors. Despite being in a global working environment their occupational identity are truly locally constructed.
“He was from first to last, from start to finish, a man and a real seaman”

Weibust 1969:194

“I can tell you what a real sailor is. He’s a guy who’ll lend you his last cent, give you his shirts, pants and shoes; lend you his liquor and cigarettes; fight for you and with you, and maybe let you take his girl out for the evening. But you just relieve him two minutes late on a watch and he’s as sore as hell”

Weibust 1969:189


The question of ‘identity’ and ‘globalisation’ has become central themes in a variety of academic discourses within the social sciences, both separately and interrelated. The most important theoretical discourse relevant for this paper is the construction of cultural identity within the process of globalisation. Globalisation could be defined as ‘the crystallisation of the entire world into a single place’, and the discourse focuses on how cultural identities are constructed across national boundaries and due to transnational or global connections. Still, it seems to be a lack of empirical studies about these issues particularly when it comes to how the process of globalisation and transnational connections actually affects people’s daily lives and behaviour. In sociology the term ‘identity’ has taken on different connotations depending upon the contexts within which it is deployed. It appears theoretically useful to break the concept of identification down into its components, both for comparative purposes and in order to provide finer tools for the analysis of specific problems of social structure and individual behaviour in various ways. This paper attempts to provide such a breakdown for one type of identification, that of work identity. The issue being discussed in this paper is ‘occupational identity’ of sailors on multiethnic-crewed ships in international trade. There is a seeming paradox in analysing how sailors from different national groups see their work. It seems like their occupational identities are nationally constructed, with considerable variations between different national groups, despite the fact that they are working together in a highly global or transnational workplace. One might assume that sailors’ occupational identity is constructed without references to national boundaries because of the transnational setting they are working in. However, the existence of an internationally constructed idea of being a sailor seems to be absent. Despite the cosmopolitan context, sailors seem to be extremely local in identifying with their work. The main object of this paper is to examine and compare the content and character of the occupational identity of Norwegian and Filipino sailors working together on ships in international trade, and also to discuss possible causes and consequences of them viewing their work differently. Central questions to be discussed and hopefully answered: How do sailors see their work, and how do they perceive public attitudes? In what way do sailors’ work identity varies when comparing two groups of different national, cultural and ethnic background. How does the global context of a ship influence on how sailors see their work, their work motivation and their work behaviour? In order to answer these questions I will first examine central terms and theoretical ideas flourishing in the globalisation discourse. Secondly, I will clarify what is meant by the ‘identity of work’ in general, and how occupational identities could have an impact on the working environment. Thirdly, and most important, I will describe global aspects of ships in international trade, and examine and compare core elements in the occupational identity of Norwegian and Filipino sailors. Before some concluding remarks in the end, I will commend on possible consequences of sailors’ various work identities in the same global workplace.

Globalisation and identity

The debate on globalisation, and its consequences, has been going on now in a variety of different fields of intellectual work for some time2. There has however been some confusion about terms in this debate, and it seems to me that different theorists put different meaning into the frequently used term ‘globalisation’. In the following section I will enlighten some core elements in the discourse of globalisation of culture and identity, relevant for this paper.

The existence of a global culture?

Historically we have been used to think of cultures as distinctive structures of meaningful form usually closely linked to territories and of individuals as self-evidently linked to particular such culture. The underlying assumption here is that culture flows mostly in face-to-face relationships, and that people do not move around much. The increasing interconnectedness of varied local cultures and the development of cultures without a clear anchorage in any one territory have made several theorists discuss the existence of a global culture (see e.g., Hannerz 1990, 1996; Featherstone 1990, 1995; Smith 1990; Friedman 1990, 1994). However, is it possible to talk of a global culture? “If by a global culture we mean something akin to the culture of the nation-state writ large then the answer is no”, according to Featherstone (1990:1). He argues that the concept of a global culture fails not least because the image of the culture of a nation-state is one that generally emphasises cultural homogeneity and integration. It would then be impossible to identify an integrated global culture without the formation of a world state. Though, it might be possible to refer to the globalisation of culture according to Featherstone. Smith (1990) examines the concept of ‘a global culture’, and argues that we can’t speak of ‘culture’ in the singular. If by ‘culture’ is meant a collective mode of life, or a repertoire of beliefs, styles, values and symbols, then we can only speak of cultures, never just culture. Smith argues further that a ‘global culture’ is a ‘constructed’ culture or an ‘imagined community’ because unlike national cultures, a global culture is essentially memoryless. Nations can be understood as historic identities, or at least deriving closely from them, while a global and cosmopolitan culture fails to relate to any such historic identity. Where the ‘nation’ can be constructed as to draw upon and revive latent popular experiences and needs, Smith argues that a global culture answers to no living needs. One could also argue that the term ‘globalisation’ could be replaced with the term ‘Westernisation’ or ‘ Americanisation’, because the global process do not include the entire world as equal partners. Other theorists, like Hannerz, hold that the network of social relationships in the world and the flow of meanings as well as of people and goods between its different regions are signs of the existence of what he call a 'world culture'. It goes far beyond the scope of this paper to go deeper into this discourse of how theorists differ in their use of terms and how they see the world. However, the rise in the intensity of a wide variety of cultural flows, for example the increasing flows of people, technology, financial information, media images and information, which make transnational encounters more frequent could not be ignored as to have some consequences on peoples lives and their cultural identity. However, the term transnational connections and cultures may be more precise and less pretentious in describing these processes.

Cosmopolitans and locals

“If there were only locals in the world, world culture would be no more than the sum of its separate parts”.

Hannerz 1990:249
Ulf Hannerz (1990) argues that the world culture is created through the increasing interconnectedness of varied local cultures where people connect in different ways. He uses Robert Merton’s cosmopolitan-local distinctions in a global context, to describe how people identify themselves with the global or not. The term ‘cosmopolitan’ is often used rather loosely to describe just about anybody who moves around in the world. But of such people, Hannerz argue some would seem more cosmopolitans than others and others again hardly cosmopolitans at all. He describes a genuine cosmopolitanism as first of all an orientation - a willingness to engage with the other. The willingness to become involved with the other, and the concern with achieving competence in cultures, which are initially alien, is central. Being on the move is not enough to turn into a cosmopolitan. Due to this Hannerz ask a crucial question: Are tourists, exiles, business people and labour migrants cosmopolitans? And if not: Why? A contemporary writer, Paul Theroux (1986), comments that many people travel for the purpose of ‘home plus’. They seem cosmopolitans but are really locals at heart. Spain is home plus sunshine, India is home plus servants etc. For business people travel is ideally home plus more and better business. The ‘plus’ has often nothing to do with alien systems of meaning, and a lot to do with facts of nature, such as nice beaches or sunshine. The exiles are often no real cosmopolitan either, because their involvement with an alien culture is something that has been forced on them. At best, life in another country is home plus safety or home plus freedom. For labour migrants going away may be home plus higher income and their involvement with another culture is a necessary cost to be kept as low as possible (Hannerz 1990).

Transnational cultures today tend to be occupational cultures (and are often tied to transnational job markets). Konrad (1984) emphasises the transnational culture of intellectuals for instance.

“The global flow of information proceeds on many different technical and institutional levels, but on all levels the intellectuals are the ones who know most about one another across the frontiers, who keep in touch with one another, and who feel that they are one another’s allies…”

Konrad 1984: 208

Hannerz add that there are transnational occupational cultures also of bureaucrats, politicians, business people, journalists and diplomats, and various others. These people shift their bases for longer periods within their lives and wherever they go they’ll find others who will interact with them in the terms of specialised but collectively held understandings. Hannerz argue that because of the transnational cultures, a large number of people are nowadays systematically and directly involved with more than one culture. The transnational and territorial cultures of the world are entangled with one another in manifold ways. Some transnational cultures are more insulated from local practises than others and the transnational cultures are also as wholes usually more marked by some territorial culture than by others. However, most of them are in different ways extensions or transformations of the culture of Western Europe and North America.

The identity of work

The relationship between a person’s sense of who they are – their personal identity – and the paid work they perform for a living has been a source of concern to nearly all those engaged in theorising about modern work organisation and behaviour (Du Gay 1996). As a fundamental human category, work is represented not only as livelihood, but also as a stable, consistent source of self-identity. Several social scientists reconsider work as the crucial source of meaning in people’s lives. Work is quite often seen as the key to human self-actualisation and self-fulfilment, and ‘alienation’ has acted as a nodal point around which discussion of the proper place of paid work in people’s lives has been conducted. The construction of work identity might be seen as a strong sense of work-group identification, a need among workers for belonging and a we-they difference. However, the issue of this paper is not to explore the impact work has on people’s life and personal identity nor the construction of identity in general, but rather how people see their work and identify themselves with it. Several aspects on how people see their work and their dedication to the work they perform compile the content of occupational identity in this sense. By comparison of three different occupational groups, Howard Becker suggests four major elements of work identification (Becker 1971). The following dimensions of occupational identity are collected from Becker’s work, and supplied with different aspects relevant for the aim of this paper, and will later on be discussed in relation to how Norwegian and Filipino sailors see their work.

Dimensions of occupational identity

Traditions, recruitment and socialisation

Different kinds of work tend to be rooted in the society in different ways. The existence of strong traditions in connection to a specific occupation in a society is not unusual, and the recruitment and socialisation of people into specific occupations quite often are results of these traditions. One typical example in rural areas in Norway is traditions in farming. As I will describe later, there are also very strong traditions in the coastal areas in Norway for working in the maritime sector, either as fishermen or as sailors. Historical and cultural traditions would therefore have an enormous impact on the occupational identity in some kinds of work. In fact, the way workers are recruited and socialised into occupations might in most occupations be important to how they identify themselves with their work.

Public attitudes and social position in the larger society

Occupational identity is tied to the pleasures and pain of work, as well as the imagined responses of the public. According to Fine (1996) workers judge their satisfaction both internally and externally, and they need both internal and external positive feedback to be satisfied. When workers gain this satisfaction, they feel that they are making a difference, and that they are competent. Occupational identity also contain an implicit reference to the person’s position in a larger society, tending to specify the positions appropriate for a person doing such work or which have become possible for him by virtue of his work. The most frequent references are of course, to social class position and the opportunities for class mobility opened up or closed off by entrance into the particular occupation. However, public attitudes are also of considerable importance to the social position of workers or occupational groups, as we will see later on in this paper. Becker (1971) argues that it is possible for an identification to contain a statement of a particular relation of members of the occupation to the society, quite apart from class considerations.

Commitment to work or specific tasks

According to Becker (1971) the elements of attachment, or lack of it, to a specific set of tasks and ways of handling them, and the feeling of capability to engage in such activities, thus also play an important part in identification with one’s work. Workers most likely feel identified with some specific kind of tasks, and among workers the dedication to one’s work could be quite strong. There may be a feeling that only some sharply limited set of work tasks, carried on in a particular way, is proper, all others being excluded, and that one is, among other things, the kind of person who does this kind of work. This could in fact be the most important dimension in identifying with one’s work for many workers.

Commitment to a workplace or a specific organisation

An occupational identity tends to specify the kinds of organisations, and positions within them, it is desirable or likely that one will work or continue working (Becker 1971). How individual workers look upon their work also interrelates strongly with their commitment to a workplace or a specific organisation. For an organisation to function efficiently and for workers to contain alienation, participants must feel that they belong and that the organisation matters. Fine (1996) argues that organisations prefer voluntary commitment, and that workers give this commitment more often than might be expected. In his study of the culture and identity of restaurant work, Fine found that feelings of personal closeness occur despite, and perhaps because of, the diversity of kitchen workers. The personal backgrounds of workers in his study varied widely, as did their ethnic background. Fine argues further that one effective strategy of connecting workers to their workplace is for management to propound the metaphor that the organisation is a family, a primary group providing personal self-image, community, and local culture. Most workplaces are communities by necessity: workers share a common space and must cope with each other on a daily basis.

Occupational title and ideology

As Becker says, “kinds of work tend to be named, to become well-defined occupations” (Becker 1971:178). An important part of a person’s work-based identity grows out of this relationship to his occupational title. Some workers take great pride in their occupational title others do not. The names carry a great deal of symbolic meaning, which tends to be incorporated into the identity. They specify an area of endeavour belonging to those bearing the name and locate this area in relation to similar kinds of activity in a broader field. They also imply a great deal about the characteristics of their bearers, and these meanings are often systematised into elaborate ideologies that itemise the qualities, interests, and capabilities of those identified. The title, with its implications, may thus be an object of attachment or avoidance, and kinds of identification may fruitfully be compared in this regard. Workers relationship to their occupational title and ideology are, as we will see in the case of sailors’ occupational identity, strongly related to public attitudes. The symbolic meaning of an occupational title is also in many ways influenced by cultural and historical aspects of an occupation, and occupational cultures might therefore be a crucial element in how workers identify themselves with their work.

The impact of culture and national distinctions on identity of work

The different dimensions of occupational identity appears to be general and could therefore easily be taken into consideration when comparing the identity of work in various occupational groups as well as the identity of work in different countries. However, cultural and national differences in socio-economical aspects seem to be of great importance when comparing how two groups of different cultural and national background identify with the same occupation despite working in the same transnational working environment. Occupations tend to have different status and ideologies in different societies, and a highly relevant question in this case is to ask how occupational identities are constructed. Whether the identity of work is constructed on the basis of the work being performed and the workplace or on the basis of traditions, culture and socio-economical features in the society where workers live is therefore crucial. However, I have chosen not to go into a theoretical discussion of how occupational identities are constructed. As previously described, Hannerz (1990) argue that there are transnational occupational cultures of business people, intellectuals, diplomats, journalists, bureaucrats, politicians and various others. His argument for this is first that these occupational groups quite often are tied to transnational job markets. Second that they shift their bases around the world for longer periods of their working life and therefore get involved with different cultures. Third that they interact with people of different national and cultural backgrounds on rather specialised issues and therefore share collectively held understandings. Hannerz describes these transnational occupational cultures by observing them from the outside, but it would probably be of greater interest if individuals in these groups where asked about how they see their work, how they identify themselves with it and what motivates them to do what they do. This is basically what this paper is about, when looking closer into one seeming transnational occupational culture.

The culture and identity of sailors

The occupational group being explored in this paper is sailors working on multiethnic-crewed ships owned and registered in Norway but sailing in international trade. When examining the culture and identity of sailors I will basically make use of current empirical descriptions selected from various studies in Norway3. However, sailors seem to be invisible workers in occupational sociology. There is not much research done recently about sailors and most of the literature about the social environment on ships presents several key topics in a superficial way. One of the exceptions though, is an ethnographical research project done by Christoffer Serck-Hanssen (1996, 1997a, 1997b) on two cargo ships crewed by Norwegians and Filipinos. His work will be frequently referred in this paper4. When exploring the culture and identity of sailors, I will focus upon Norwegian and Filipino sailors. One obvious and practical reason for this is of course the work of Serck-Hanssen. However, the more substantial explanation is that most Norwegian owned interethnic-crewed ships are in fact crewed with Norwegian and Filipino sailors and that makes them the most favourable groups to compare on this specific topic. This will be further amplified below.

Norwegian owned ships in international trade

Norwegian owned ships in international trade today are mostly crewed with men recruited from foreign countries. Barely about one half of the Norwegian ships have Norwegian officers and captains. The Norwegian ship owners differ in their policy of how many different ethnic groups they mix on each ship, and also from which countries they recruit the crew. In 1999 the number of sailors on Norwegian ships in international trade were in total 66 250. Of those, 15 100 were Norwegians and 51 150 were recruited from other nations (The Norwegian Shipowners Association 1999). Most of the foreigners are recruited from the Philippines, India, Poland and Russia, which are all poor countries and therefore the salaries may be kept low compared to the Norwegian level of wages. 60% of the foreigners are recruited from the Philippines.

The transnational culture of sailors

At first sight sailors seem to be the true cosmopolitans in the world. They are constantly on the move around the world, having the world oceans as their workplace. International maritime law and institutions have a direct impact on their work and daily routines, as well as their maritime education. They work together with sailors from different parts of the world, and most of them must use an alien language (English) as their working language. The ship where they work are owned and registered in one country (in this case: Norway) and are quite often put under management or hired by various trade- or shipping companies in other countries. Sailors have to compete in a transnational labour market, where the level of their wages counts the most. International shipping is one of the world’s most transnational businesses. The competition among relevant parts in the marked is not really dependent of where ships are sailing, where ships are coming from, where vessels are built or maintained or where the crew is recruited. The shipping business is highly capitalist, and shipowners act directly in the world marked seeking highest income at lowest costs. The shipping business is also extremely exposed to international trade cycles. However, the transnational setting of ships is far from historically new. Sailors and seafarers have always been working in a highly transnational environment, and have in most countries been looked upon as the first globetrotters or cosmopolitans. On the basis of Hannerz descriptions of transnational occupational cultures, sailors seem to be one of the most transnational occupations in the world society. However, when looking closer into how two groups of sailors of different ethnic background see their work and identify themselves with it the reality seem to be much more complex.

Being a Norwegian sailor

Traditions, recruitment and socialisation

Norway has always been a seafaring nation. During the last century, and even long before, shipping has been a considerable and important business in Norway, not only of economical reasons but also as a major part of the Norwegian culture and identity. This could be symbolised by the countless number of songs and stories that has been written in Norway about life at sea. All over the country, and of course especially in the coastal areas, it was common for boys to go to sea. The seamen even enjoyed a certain prestige in many coastal areas. Even boys from outside the typical maritime districts were attracted by the halo of adventure, which often surrounded men who had been to sea (Weibust 1969). In 1975 20% of the male working population in Norway had been to sea once in their life (Serck-Hanssen 1997a). However, this is far from the reality today. Norway is still regarded as one of the major seafaring nations in the world, despite the size of its inhabitants. Though, the amount of sailors in the Norwegian working population is small and most of them are men who have been working at sea since the 60s or 70s. The change from being a large and vital occupational group to become a small and in many ways a marginalised group seems to have had a significant impact on the occupational identity of sailors in Norway.

Why did boys go to sea in those days? The answer lies of course in a variety of interacting push and pull factors (Weibust 1969). Economic pressure played a significant impulse and a large proportion of seamen came from unfertile coastal areas or overpopulated districts. Family traditions were another crucial factor in motivating boys to go to sea. The fact that sailors since old days still enjoyed a certain prestige in the coastal areas must have been a motivating factor as well. Naturally the sea could also provide a means of escape, either from military service, school or a difficult adolescence. And not least, the seaman’s life gave one the chance “to see the world”. However, these factors may have had an impact on Norwegian sailors when they first went to sea. For young people becoming sailors in Norway today one need a maritime education, either in navigation or in engineering, before going to sea. There are a relatively small group of students who chooses a maritime education in Norway, and most of them do not work on ships for more than 2-5 years before seeking a job in the maritime sector ashore. However, most of the Norwegian men aboard the two ships Serck-Hanssen did his fieldwork, and upon whom I base my analyses, were middle-aged and had been working as sailors for about 30 years.

Public attitudes and social position of sailors in Norway

Sailors in Norway have for several decades been struggling for social acceptance and public acknowledgement in their work in Norway. Moral stigmas and stereotypes about sailors regarding alcohol consumption and affiliation with prostitutes are among reasons for this. Serck-Hanssen illustrates this by a quotation from one of his informants.
“If one criminal has been to sea for a short period once for 20 years ago, you could be sure of that he will be described as a sailor in the news”

Serck-Hanssen 1997a:77 (my translation)

Sailors’ long vacations at times of year when everybody else are working, has also been an element in how they as an occupational group has been stigmatised in Norway. Several researchers describes how sailors have to legitimise their long vacations for people who never see them work and therefore do not know what being a sailor is about (Serck-Hanssen 1997a, Sørhaug & Aamot 1981, Borchgrevink & Melhus 1985). Sailors are quite invisible as an occupational group in the Norwegian public, despite the image of Norway as a major seafaring nation in the world, that they used to be a large occupational group in Norway and still counts for more than 20 000 of the working population. Through generations there has been established a myth about the sailor. This myth describes the sailor as a ‘man of the world’ who had been around the world sailing on ‘the seven oceans’, and a fearless hero in his hometown. He was the one to tell jokes and stories, he had tattoos on his chest and arms and ‘a wife in every port of call’. He was the image of a real man (Sørhaug & Aamot 1981:95). Despite, or maybe because of, this myth sailors do not have any prestige as an occupational group in Norway today. According to Serck-Hanssen sailors struggle to prove for the society that they are honourable and moral people. This may be the main reason for they’re self-characterising as hard working men with an excellent knowledge of fine seamanship as will be described.

Commitment to the work, the ship and the shipowner

According to Serck-Hanssen (1996, 1997a, 1997b) the discourse among the Norwegian sailors on the two ships where he did his fieldwork was mostly about ‘being a good sailor’, described as masculine, conscientious, responsible and physically strong men concerned about the ship and with a strong commitment to their work. Among the Norwegians, ‘seamanship’ is strongly emphasised as the main element in their work ethics. The sailor who shows a naturally ability and is successful in seamanship is regarded as a good sailor (Serck-Hanssen 1997a; Weibust 1969). What exactly is meant by seamanship is somehow not quite clear, but core elements have to do with hard work, physical strength, responsibilities and technical skills. An old phrase, ‘in shipshape’, which originates from the days of sailing ships is highly relevant when talking about seamanship. ‘Shipshape’ means that everything on board is to be kept in good condition, in orderly manner and that the ship is run in a seamanlike style (Weibust 1969:187). Norwegian sailors show a strong commitment to the ship and the shipowner, by keeping the ship in shipshape.

The content of this work ethic can be seen as a version of the ‘protestant work ethic’, which has been strong in Norway, and gives work a moral value in itself. The Norwegian sailors have also for many years been losing jobs to Filipinos and others on much lower salaries. When Norwegian sailors’ stress the importance of being excellent workers and ‘good sailors’ it could be seen partly as a result of their struggle for jobs, as well as a defence for and legitimisation of their relatively higher salaries (Serck-Hanssen 1997a).

Occupational ideology

Several researchers have emphasized the dedication to life as a sailor and masculinity as core values in the ideology of being a sailor (see e.g., Serck-Hanssen 1996, 1997a, 1997b, Sørhaug & Aamot 1980, Weibust 1969). The working environment on ships is highly male-dominant and ideas of masculinity and manhood have played an important role in the ideology of this occupation in Norway. Norwegian sailors in Serck-Hanssen’s material describe the image of the sailor as physically strong, fearless, rough and heterosexual men. Masculinity is in social psychology seen as tied to sexuality and the flight from femininity, and masculinity is also quite often expressed through homophobia (Kimmel 1994). The Norwegian sailors contrast themselves to the Filipino sailors, and Filipinos are labelled as being physically weak, feminine and homosexual among other things. According to Serck-Hanssen, the labelling of Filipinos as feminine and homosexual could be seen as an inquisitive result of the fact that they are much smaller compared to the Norwegians, and therefore seen as physically weak. Further, that they tend to mix the English ‘he’ and ‘she’ because these pronouns are the same in the Filipino language, and also that they quite often are seen hand in hand (which in fact are common among Asian men).

Being a Filipino sailor

Traditions, recruitment and socialisation

The Filipino sailors see themselves, and are regarded by the public, as labour migrants. Officially they are ‘overseas contract workers’ (OCW) administered by Philippines Overseas Employment Administration. On the Philippines it is quite common to go abroad to be able to provide for the family, and to work as sailors is only one of many alternative things to do for a living. The Philippines is among one of the countries in the world that most strongly bases its economy on labour migration. The government choose this as a solution to the problem of the high unemployment rate, besides the fact that the labour migrants bring home hard currency, which do well for the national economy. Labour migration constitutes a central theme in the public discourse on the Philippines. The financial income from labour migrants counts for about 14-30% of the GDP. Due to this, the Filipino government has exported workers for many years. In 1990 the average number of overseas contract workers were 1.2 million, including about 200 000 sailors (Serck-Hanssen 1997a:96). Most of the overseas contract workers are working in the Middle East and other Asian countries. In many ways, you might say that the discourse about being a sailor on the Philippines is a variety of the discourse about being a labour migrant in general (Serck-Hanssen 1997a). It might therefore be relevant to compare the occupational identity of sailors to the occupational identity of labour migrants. According to Serck-Hanssen, it seems like the Filipino sailors in a lesser degree than the Norwegians identify themselves with their work (Serck-Hanssen 1997a). One sign of this tendency is that ‘work’ is not a topic in the discourse among the Filipinos aboard (Serck-Hanssen 1997a)5.

The most important reason to choose to be labour migrants on the Philippines is the possibilities for a higher income. On the average, a migrant worker earn 4-5 times more than workers ordinarily do on the Philippines, and for those with higher education the difference could even reach 10 times more. When comparing the job as a sailor in international trade to other types of migrant work or jobs ashore, it is seen as quite attractive (Serck-Hanssen 1997a). One of the reasons for this is the much higher income and better opportunities to go home to the family from time to time. The contract period for Filipino sailors is 10 months on ships in international trade, compared to two years for contract workers in the Gulf. The salaries on ships are also higher than in the Gulf. Filipino sailors on Norwegian owned ships in international trade are recruited through agencies on the Philippines. The Norwegian shipowner has limited knowledge of the foreign crew on their ships, and they never communicate directly with them (Blystad 1992).

Public attitudes and social position of sailors on the Philippines

The public on the Philippines look upon the Filipino sailors as overseas contract workers on relatively high wages. They are therefore seen as good providers for their families, as for the national economy, and therefore they enjoy a great deal of prestige and public acknowledgement in their work. According to Serck-Hansen sailors constitute an occupational group in the upper middle class on the Philippines (Serck-Hanssen 1997a). Due to their relatively higher income, Filipino sailors are attractive among women as husbands and ‘good providers’ for the family. A cornerstone of the Filipino society is the extended nuclear family (Rugkåsa 1997), and childcare is therefore in the hands of several family members and relatives not only the mother. Men are expected to be sole breadwinners, while women are expected to stay at home to take care of the family. Working as sailors and being separated from the family for several months therefore fits nicely with the traditional gender roles on the Philippines, and being away for so long are more seen as an emotional problem than a practical problem. A legalized rule on the Philippines states that at least 80% of the basic salary must be send home to the family, is also a key factor to strengthen the bonds of matrimony. When sailors are home on vacations they enjoy a relatively high living standard

and prestige in the local community.

Commitment to the work, the ship and the shipowner in Norway

According to Serck-Hanssen (1996, 1997a, 1997b) the discourse among the Filipino sailors on the two ships where he did his fieldwork was mostly about ‘being good providers’ and homesickness, and hardly anything about work. This most likely has to do with gender roles and the family structure where being a ‘good provider’ is essential for men on the Philippines, as previously described. Their identity as ‘good providers’ is therefore essential to their work identity. Secondly, they emphasise the suffering aboard as an important part of being sailors and the suffering involves homesickness. However, to be a sailor can be seen as a sacrifice for a better future, and to show their homesickness and longing for their families could be a part of the suffering involved.

As previously described, Filipino sailors are recruited through agencies on the Philippines and are never in direct contact with shipowners in Norway. Because of this, they feel less committed to the shipowner than the agencies at home (Blystad 1992). They most likely do not feel committed to the ship either, because they do not know for sure if they ever will be working on the same ship for another period. The possibilities to climb in the hierarchy are also better for the Norwegians than for the Filipinos. Altogether, these structural features have an important impact on the Filipino sailors’ commitment to the ship and the shipowner.

Occupational ideology

According to Serck-Hanssen, the occupational identity of Filipino sailors is strongly connected to the renunciation on behalf of the family. When talking about being a sailor they emphasise the suffering and homesickness more than making a point of being ‘good sailors’ as the Norwegians do. Being a ‘good provider’ is probably the most important thing to be for working men on the Philippines. As already described, sailors on ships in international trade are attractive husbands because of their relatively higher income. The fact that Filipino sailors are ‘good providers’ seems to be an important part of the occupational ideology. As for the Norwegians, the ideology of work has much to do with masculinity and gender roles in a Filipino setting. Another side of the ideology of being sailors on the Philippines is the ‘seafaring myths’, which have an integrating effect among sailors as well as being a part of the occupational identity of sailors on the Philippines. These myths are constructed of histories of life at sea in general and about ‘seeing the world’.


As we have seen, the occupational identity of Norwegian sailors are connected to being ‘good sailors’ with a knowledge of ‘seamanship’ while the Filipino sailors relates their occupational identity first and foremost to being ‘good providers’. While Norwegians are concerned about their role as workers, Filipinos are more concerned about their role as providers in the Filipino society. This may be addressed to the fact that the prestige of being sailors and the public attitudes towards sailors are completely different when comparing Norway and the Philippines, as well as socio economic differences between the two countries. While Norwegian sailors are struggling for social acceptance in Norway, Filipino sailors enjoy prestige and public acknowledgement on the Philippines. This most likely has to do with cultural and national differences when it comes to identity of work in general as well as public attitudes towards sailors as an occupational group. The question of what is considered as being a good worker and how this varies between different societies is most relevant. Being a good provider (to escape poverty) seems to be the most important value of being a worker on the Philippines, while how you fulfil your work is the most important in Norway. When Norwegian sailors stress the importance of being good sailors it could also be seen as a result of their struggle for jobs, for higher prestige and a defence for and legitimisation of their relatively higher salaries than the Filipinos.

Apparently, being a sailor is not accorded equal status in all nations at all times and this must be taken into consideration when comparing groups from different nations. At first sight, sailors are members of an occupational group connected to a transnational occupational culture like intellectuals, politicians, diplomats and various others as examined by Hannerz (1990). They are working together in a transnational working environment far away (both in time and space) from their home country and still they identify to their work differently. Socio economic and cultural differences between nations seem to be of considerable importance to how sailors identify with their work. In summary, it might be said that behind sailors’ cosmopolitan image they are truly locals at heart.

Consequences of sailors’ various work identities in the same global workplace

There might of course be some consequences of sailors’ various work identities when working together on the same ships, or said in another way: Why is there a need for a collective identity and collectively held understandings among workers in the same workplace? In the sociology of work and organisation it is widely agreed upon that for an organisation to function efficiently participants must feel that they belong and that the organisation matters. Collectively held understandings might reduce hostility and stereotypes between groups of different nationalities in one workplace. Several studies would confirm this tendency. Billy Ehn found, through his observations in a multicultural factory in Sweden, that the work situation reduced intergroup tension and boundaries among workers across national, cultural and ethnic differences (Ehn 1981:155). And as previously described, Fine (1996) found that feelings of personal closeness occurred despite, and perhaps because of, the diversity of kitchen workers. The personal and ethnic backgrounds of workers in Fine’s study varied widely, in the same ways as it does on ships in international trade. However, this highly integrated social environment seems not to be absent on ships. Research about the ship as a multiethnic workplace, describes a segregated social environment, with hardly any social contact and interaction among sailors from different national, cultural and ethnic groups6. Despite the fact that these men are living and working in the same clearly demarcated social system for several months, the interethnic interaction is minimal. The contact they have during their workday is mostly based on orders and commands. They eat separately and they hardly ever do the same social activities in their spare time. Researchers have also emphasised conflicts, problems of communication and intergroup hostility. Partly, this might be a consequence of differences in the way they see their work and identify themselves with it. In fact, sailors various occupational identities might be viewed as both a determinant and a consequence of the segregated working environment between Norwegian and Filipino sailors. Their various definition of work may lead to intergroup stereotypes and tension, which again might strengthen the degree to which they see their life as sailors differently.

Concluding remarks

Hannerz (1990) and other social scientists have over the last decade argued that the process of globalisation have influenced on peoples live and identity. According to Hannerz, there are cosmopolitans and there are locals in the world. When describing occupational cultures, he especially enlightens transnational occupational cultures like those of bureaucrats, politicians, intellectuals, diplomats, journalists and various others. At first sight, sailors in international trade fits nicely in with Hannerz' description of a transnational occupational culture. When looking closer, sailors from different nations see their work and identify themselves to their work differently. How they look upon their work and work situation seems to be constructed with reference to values, traditions and public attitudes in their home country more than to their workplace, the global setting they are working in or the work itself. Being in the world, interacting with people from alien cultures and acting in transnational markets does not necessarily mean being cosmopolitans. On the contrary, I have illustrated that despite a seeming global working environment it might be constituted of local people.


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1 This paper is originally prepared for the dr.polit course ’The Sociology of Globalization: The Emergence of a Global Society or Globaloney?’ lectured by Professor Michael Mann, Oslo Summer School in Comparative Social Science 2000, University of Oslo. The paper has been written as part of my doctoral research project in Sociology ’Interethnic communication among sailors’. I thank Grete Brochmann, Pål Meland, Jon Reiersen and Are Branstad for helpful and valuable comments on earlier drafts of this paper. Correspondence: Vestfold College, Department of Maritime Studies, P.O. Box 2243, N-3103 Tønsberg, Norway, or e-mail to

2 For an introduction to the ’globalisation’ discourse, see for example Held & McGrew (2000).

3 For further readings: Serck-Hanssen 1996, 1997a, 1997b; Spjelkavik & Næss 1993; Blystad 1992; Borchgrevink & Melhus 1985; Aubert & Arner 1962; Sørhaug & Aamot 1980; Weibust 1969.

4 I am writing this paper in an early stage of my doctoral research project ‘Interethnic communication among sailors’. I have therefore not yet been able to collect data for this project, and must therefor base my analysis in this paper on data selected by other researchers. I am planning to do fieldwork during spring and summer of 2001.

5 It could of course be argued that Serck-Hanssen as a Norwegian most likely had limited access to the discourse among the Filipinos, both due to language differences and his obvious relation to the Norwegian officers aboard. This methodological problem must therefore be taken into consideration when analysing distinctions between Norwegians and Filipinos.

6 For further readings see, Blystad 1992; Bedriftsrådgivning 1995; Dahle, Aall & Thorseng 1991; Serck-Hanssen 1996, 1997a, 1997b; Spjelkavik & Næss 1993; Johnsen & Kvande 1991.

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