About the Project

Coordination: Raquel Varela- Marcel van der Linden



From a global history perspective, we intend to study shipbuilding labour around the world from World War II until the present. We will track the relocation of production and analyse its consequences to workforces in Europe, North and South America, and in East Asia from the 1980s onwards.
The economic crisis of the 1970s and 1980s globally led to a structural change in production. Shipbuilding, along with mining and steel, was an important industry in Europe and Japan, and latterly, South Korea. As a consequence of the crisis, structural change led to reorganization of methods of production in Western European and Scandinavian shipyards. The centres of production, due to intense international competition in the market for ships, began to be relocated to East Asia. Japan had remained the world’s largest shipbuilder from 1956 onwards, but by the 1990s, South Korea was a serious competitor (37.8% of completed ships in 2009, Lloyd’s World Shipbuilding Statistics, 2009).
Among the many reasons for studying shipbuilding labour, is the importance of this industry to transportation and world trade, steel industry, its relationship with military defence, and its productive character. Shipbuilding is essentially an assembly industry and therefore one which a newly industrialising country [NIC] finds attractive. NICs in the initial stages of setting up a shipbuilding industry, State-supported companies can import advanced technology and expertise, and direct labour to suitable locations. As an “industry of synthesis” shipbuilding is an important customer of the steel industry and, as the industry grows, it requires specific qualifications in the workforce. In western economies the shipbuilding labour force was originally fragmented but, over time, unionisation grew in line with the division of labour. Forms of apprenticeship were introduced and the workforce generally was split up into task-specific trades. As international competition began to bite in the late 1970s shipyards in Western Europe began to close. In the UK the bulk of the industry was nationalized in 1977 only to be broken up and privatized from 1984 onwards. Sweden, often seen by commentators as a real competitor to Japan in shipbuilding, came out of the industry all together in the 1980s. Clustering of firms in particular locations is a feature of shipbuilding; thus the impact of closures and subsequent unemployment had a dramatic impact on closely knit communities where the industry had historically been the major employer. Although State control of shipbuilding in the UK was not successful, it was arguably too little and too late in any event. State support of shipbuilding and ship repairing elsewhere, Japan, South Korea, Brazil, Singapore, Portugal, Spain, France, Netherlands, Norway, Finland, Vietnam and China proved vital. In many cases States were either direct producers or regulators of industrial activity and, crucially, for reasons initially of economic nationalism, provided either direct finance to companies or subsidized them through loans, grants or other financial incentives including taxation. Globalization implied relocation of production to areas of low cost labour and, or, outsourcing of particular activities such as steelwork.
In analysing labour relations, labour conditions, composition of the workforce, workers’ recruitment, workers living conditions, labour cultures, labour conflicts, organization and leadership, shifts in production, the role of shipyards in national and international economy, governments policies and regulations and the social and economic effects of closures of shipyards, research sources utilised will be local, regional and national records of shipyard employers and shipyard unions, business records of individual firms, government records pertaining to the industry, local and national press and other media, interviews with government ministers, owners, managers and workers, and results of various surveys.
The proposal is a global labour history project, under the initiative of the International Institute for Social History, Amsterdam, following the approach of earlier comparative studies on the history of dock workers and on the history of textile workers (Davies et al. 2000; Heerma van Voss et.al. 2010). The model will be the Collective Research Model (http://www.iisg.nl/publications/prolegom.pdf, p. 21 ).

A Global History of Shipbuilders: Collective Research Model
Following the successful model of earlier IISH projects on dock workers and textile workers, the project will be undertaken in four consecutive stages. In the first stage various researchers will write the history of the shipyards in their countries of expertise utilising the available secondary literature. This will build a wide range of different perspectives, involving 10 to 15 countries. We already have involved participants from South Korea, Brazil, Argentina, Germany, Poland, Scandinavia (Sweden, Finland), Turkey, Great Britain, Portugal and Spain. We will also attempt to recruit suitable researchers in The Netherlands, Japan, China and USA, via our networks and/or an open call for papers. We will encourage the study of more than one shipyard in each country according to the focus of production in separate firms in order to have a comparative perspective.
We will also compose a framework document where we will list a number of topics and questions to be studied in each research area (see below). This document will be initially discussed in a workshop where we consult experts, and exchange information and suggestions to improve our research. The second stage will consist of the elaboration of comparative studies. Afterwards, in a third stage, we will meet in an international conference to discuss the projects and improve individual and comparative papers. The fourth stage will be the publication of a volume on the history of shipbuilders around the world.


1) What was the role of the shipyard in the national economy?
2) Which type of shipbuilding labour (construction or repair) was prevalent?
3) Which kind of ships were/are built in the shipyard/s and what changes in production occurred?
4) What technological developments took place in shipbuilding? How did this influence production and labour relations?
5) What was the size of the shipyard/s, what percentage and numbers were involved in production?
6) What changes occurred in the nature and extent of production and workforce? How can these changes be explained?
7) What was the role of the State in the shipyard/s? Were they state or privately owned? If private, did the firm get any kind of subsides?

The Workers
1) How were/are shipbuilding workers recruited? What was/is their social background? What changes took place and how can they be explained?
2) What was the specific age and gender composition of the workforce?
3) What were/are the labour conditions of the workers? (hours, payment, etc)
4) What were/are the living circumstances of the workers?
5) What are the influences of these workers on the social environment they live in?
6a) What forms of labour protest occurred? How they were organized and who took part?
6b) What were/are the labour strategies of resistance to privatization?
6c) What were/are labour strategies of resistance to the relocation?
6d) What was/is the role of the unions, workers committees, workers commissions, organizations, in labour struggles?
7) To what extent did a specific work culture develop?
8) To what extent was /is there international solidarity between shipyard workers?

Production Relations
1) How was shipbuilding production organized? What were/is the position of the owners/management and workers?
2) What changes occurred in the organization of the production, and how can they be explained?
3) How did specialization and managerial policy relate to strategies to handle crises in the industry?
4) What role did trade unions, employer’s organizations (both national and international) and other forms of labour organization play?
5) What was/is the influence of the State/regime in labour relations and labour struggles?

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