A cargo ship outside the port of San Juan in Puerto Rico.
A cargo barge outside the port of San Juan in Puerto Rico. Carlos Giusti/AP

Yes, it’s an obscure maritime law that you might not have heard of before this week. It’s also helping to protect the lives of U.S. sailors.

Over the past several days, opponents of President Trump’s response to the humanitarian crisis in Puerto Rico zeroed in on his unwillingness to lift the Jones Act, a 1920 maritime law that regulates U.S. shipping. After some hurried Googling of the Wilson Administration, the media joined in this chorus. Called variously ”obscure,” “anachronistic,”and “archaic,” the Jones Act has been blamed for hindering hurricane recovery by preventing foreign vessels from joining in relief efforts, jacking up the cost of desperately needed essentials on the island, and benefiting large American shipping companies at the expense of citizens, an impression Trump did nothing to dispel when he told reporters on Wednesday that there were “a lot of people that work in the shipping industry that don’t want the Jones Act lifted.”

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Bowing to a rising ride of Twitter indignation, this morning the president authorized a temporary waiver. Here’s the thing though: The Jones Act does not deserve your outrage.

It’s debatable whether more ships would help the situation in Puerto RicoCNN is reporting that goods are piling up on the dock waiting for trucks—but in any event no one in the shipping industry really objects to lifting these restrictions during an emergency, as Trump did after hurricanes Harvey and Irma. As Brian Schoeneman, legislative director for the Seafarers International Union, recently told Congress, maritime labor has never opposed a temporary Jones Act waiver, but “any long-term waiver of the Jones Act would undermine the entire purpose of the law and could jeopardize the future existence of the Merchant Marine.”

The danger of using the Jones Act as a cudgel against an unpopular president is that the overheated rhetoric loses sight of the real reasons for the law.

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The Jones Act is, at heart, a labor act. It protects the rights of sailors in the U.S. Merchant Marine from being exploited the way their counterparts abroad often are. And it’s been in the sights of Republican Senator John McCain for a long time—he most recently tried to kill it in July.

Under the Jones Act, a maritime employer is responsible for providing a safe environment for its workers, as well as paying for any medical care. It requires U.S. Coast Guard-approved safety equipment and lifeboats, trained and licensed crew, and adherence to EPA regulations. That stuff isn’t cheap, but it protects workers in an industry that’s legendary for its exploitation of sailors. “In the past 15 years the Jones Act has been sidelined by some federal courts in favor the enforcement of arbitration agreements,” KCRW found in its 2016 investigation into the safety of Filipino seafarers. ”Some injuries, negligence and wage dispute cases that would have been litigated in a courtroom are now being heard in private arbitration hearings all over the world, where the compensation can be a fraction of what may be granted by a U.S. jury.”

From the linked article:

Ben Buenaventura, a career waiter with Norwegian Cruise Line, suffered catastrophic injuries on July 20, 2016 during a safety drill. A lifeboat davit fell on top of him and his co-worker, who died immediately. Buenaventura spent a month in ICU in Miami before dying on Aug. 27, 2016. Under Philippine arbitration system, his widow—also a cruise ship worker—is entitled to roughly $60,000 USD. She cannot sue for negligence or wrongful death against NCL under the terms set forth by the Philippine government.

Vessels operate by the laws of the state whose flag they fly, which is why so-called “flag of convenience” nations like Liberia are so popular among owners, and why they have such a terrible reputation among sailors. Any added expense to shipping under the Jones Act comes for the same reason Chinese manufactured goods are cheaper than American made—we have labor laws.

McCain’s objections are free-trade-based—part of the act stipulates that goods can’t be shipped between U.S. ports by foreign-flagged vessels. So while foreign companies can and do ship directly to Puerto Rico, any cargo from the U.S. has to come on American ships. It’s possible, though unproven, that this raises the costs of goods to the island, and that argument is gaining traction as the Jones Act faces scrutiny from the left as a sign of Trump’s inaction.

Limited temporary Jones Act waivers have been issued in the past, including the one from September 8 to 22 for transporting petroleum products in hurricane-hit areas of the Gulf Coast. According to the maritime blog gCaptain, it went unused. A similar waiver was issued in the wake of Superstorm Sandy in 2012. Both went largely unnoticed by the general public.

Not this time: Today, it’s an irresistible example of Trump's indifference, and the disparity with which he treats Texans and Puerto Ricans. In that rush to judgment, though, it’s important not to lose sight of who is being protected by the Jones Act. It’s not just the shipping companies: It’s the men and women working on the ships.

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