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It is not, however, so clear who of the three does pay the middleman. Probably in different cases the burden falls differently on the master, owner, or seaman, but such information as it has been possible to elicit in the time and with the opportunities afforded for inquiry strongly points to the belief that in most cases, especially on sailing vessels, the shipping master's fee is taken, through various devices, from the wages which the sailor earns. It is not the ordinary practice of the American seaman to visit the shipping commissioner's office to ascertain if any opportunities for employment are open. He puts himself into the hands of the boarding-house keeper and relies upon him to secure him a berth after his money is used up and he is in debt to a greater or less degree.
In our large seaports the boarding-house keepers are strongly organized, and so complete has their grasp upon the shipment of seamen become that in some instances their union has forced the managers of sailors' homes, established by philanthropists, to join the union and conform to its practices. In at least one instance the boarding-house keepers' association has successfully prevented a shipping commissioner from discharging his duty. The San Francisco shipping commissioner reports:
I stated to you, in a letter dated October 2, that the master of the ship Conqueror asked that this office furnish him with a crew. For several days I posted notices accordingly along the water front and about this building, and it was generally known among the seamen in port that a crew was wanted. However, at the appointed time only eight men presented themselves. The master refused to ship any man unless he could ship the whole crew, and he immediately gave an order to McCarthy [a shipping master] to supply him with a crew. The boarding-house masters openly declared they would prevent my getting a crew for this vessel, and they had pickets about this building and on the water front to stop men from coming to this office, by circulating the false report that the vessel would not sign that day. I could have contradicted this report in a few hours and no doubt have obtained a crew if the master had given me a little time, which he declined to do. I do not believe he acted in good faith when he gave his order at this office, and it was understood between him and McCarthy that if the men were kept away McCarthy should supply the crew. The masters of deep-water vessels were rejoiced at my inability to furnish this crew. I have not had an order since.
The shipping masters, as they call themselves, or crimps, as they are called by the seamen, have also organizations at the chief seaports, designed to secure, in conjunction with the boarding-house keepers, a monopoly of the business of shipping seamen. The offices of these shipping masters in New York are usually in the rear rooms of liquor saloons or adjoin such places. This joint control of the shipment of seamen by the combination of boarding-house keepers and shipping masters is an evil of long standing in this country, and can be eradicated only by the firm and persistent execution of more rigorous laws than those now on the books. It is believed that the measures proposed will be of great assistance in the effort to eradicate those evils.
These considerations, it is quite well understood, are neither generally unknown nor new, but if the injury the conditions do to the American merchant marine can be even partially diminished by legislation, such legislation, it is believed, will receive the early and favorable consideration of Congress.
The first step necessary to the improvement in the methods of shipping seamen is to provide the shipping commissioners with offices in which masters and seamen may be actually brought together. Section 4507, Revised Statutes, provides:
Every shipping commissioner shall lease, rent, or procure, at his own cost, suitable premises for the transaction of business and for the preservation of the books and other documents connected therewith; and the premises shall be styled the shipping commissioner's office.
The shipping commissioners thus are almost the only officers of the Government left by the Government without accommodations, though absolutely requiring for the proper discharge of their functions rooms large enough at times to hold considerable bodies of men and necessarily open early and late. The salaries of the commissioners are not large, 13 of the 21 receiving under $1,500, and the officer can not justly be criticised for reluctance to spend a considerable portion of this sum for rent, light, heat, and accommodations for sailors.
Section 1 of the act of June 19, 1886, by abolishing shipping commissioners' fees, gave the commissioners the right to occupy offices in the custom-houses, post-offices, and other Federal buildings wherever there were unoccupied rooms available, but at present only four out of twentyone commissioners have been thus provided for. The commissioner at Savannah is established in the custom-house; at Baltimore in the old post-office building, and at San Francisco in the appraiser's building. One of the several steps taken by the present shipping commissioner at New York for the considerable improvement of the service was to secure the transfer of the office to the barge office on the Battery, the usual resort of the city's maritime population. The Bureau is now endeavoring to secure proper accommodations in the Federal building for the commissioner at Port Townsend.
At the remaining sixteen ports the Federal buildings are already fully occupied or are remote from shipping, and are not available for commissioners' offices, and it is necessary for the commissioners to pay out of their salaries rent for the office they occupy. The law thus makes a distinction in the treatment of commissioners, affording offices free of rent in Government buildings to some, while compelling others to pay rent. This distinction, established by the two laws quoted and by the nature and condition of the public buildings, can be readily removed by the amendment of section 4507, Revised Statutes. The law, also, has been construed to impose upon all commissioners, whether in public or private buildings, the burden of furnishing their offices and meeting the minor expenses of maintenance, which in the case of other officers of the Government are paid from the Treasury.
It is proposed that section 4507, Revised Statutes, be practically repealed and a new section of the same number be enacted, based on the belief that all shipping commissioners were made paid officers of the Government by the act of June 19, 1886, and are entitled to the same treatment as other officers. It is proposed that the section shall read:
SECTION 4507. The Secretary of the Treasury shall assign in public buildings, or otherwise procure suitable offices and rooms for the shipment and discharge of seamen to be known as shipping commissioners' offices, and shall procure furniture, stationery, printing, and other requisites for the transaction of the business of such offices.
This amendment has been incorporated as section 1 of bill L, in "Proposed legislation."
The change in the law proposed will remedy the situation created since the abolition of shipping commissioners' fees in 1886. Section 27 of the act of June 26, 1884, provided:
All fees of shipping commissioners shall be paid into the Treasury of the United States and shall constitute a fund which shall be used under the direction of the Secretary of the Treasury to pay the compensation of said commissioners and their clerks and such other expenses as he may find necessary to ensure the proper administration of their duties.
By the act of June 19, 1886, these fees were abolished, and the fund for the maintenance of the shipping commissioners' offices came to an end. The salaries of the commissioners and their clerks as fixed by the Secretary of the Treasury are paid as other salaries are, but the Department has ruled that there is no appropriation or authority for the payment of rent and other expenses incidental to the proper administration of their duties. The ruling of the Department was disputed by the shipping commissioner at New York, and on April 6, 1893, the circuit judge of the United States for the southern district of New York decided against the ruling of the Department and in favor of the commissioner, awarding him a judgment of $4,033.71. The Government took an appeal from this decision, and in April, 1894, the United States circuit court of appeals affirmed the judgment of the lower court. The circuit court of appeals held, in a decision to be found in Appendix A, that the act of 1886 does not "necessarily imply any intention to impose the burden of maintaining suitable premises for the transaction of the public business which he, the shipping commissioner, is expressly required to procure (section 4507, United States Revised Statutes) upon him instead of upon the Government which requires it to be maintained and which had assumed the obligation of maintaining it and paying the necessary expense thereof under the acts of 1872 and 1884." The case was appealed to the Supreme Court, where it now awaits argument.
The enactment by Congress of the amendment to section 4507, Revised Statutes, proposed is earnestly recommended to remove the doubt concerning the law which now exists, to secure just treatment of public officers, and, above all, as a necessary measure for the general improvement of our seamen.
The cost for salaries of commissioners and clerks last year was $61,511.70. The number of shipments, reshipments, and discharges was 118,493, so that the average cost per man was only 52 cents. On the basis of the old fee system the commissioners would have turned into the Treasury a balance of $27,187.
An estimate of the cost of the assumption by the Government of the expenses of the shipping commissioners' offices has been made, based on estimates furnished by the commissioners in response to the request of the Bureau. The details of these estimates may be found in Appendix A. The estimate shows that the first cost of furnishing and equipping the offices would be $5,650, the annual rent would be $5,900, and the annual cost of maintenance, exclusive of rent, $5,350. Taking $6,000 as a fair approximation of the cost of each item, an appropriation of $18,000 will be needed the first year, and thereafter an annual appropriation of $12,000 to carry out the proposed plan. It is recommended that the appropriation of $18,000 be included in the estimates of the Secretary of the Treasury submitted to Congress.
No delusions are cherished that the simple enactment of these propositions will end the impositions put upon seamen under the present system of shipment, or that our service will at once become as thorough as the British system, from which the crimp has been almost wholly eliminated. It is understood that those on shore who find the chance under the present system to secure a large part of the seaman's wages before they have been earned will continue to place obstacles in the way of the engagement of crews at the offices of shipping commissioners. Present customs and abuses, from which the character of our merchant seamen has suffered, it is not supposed can be uprooted by a few lines of law.
This much, however, the proposition, if enacted, will accomplish. It will strengthen the shipping commissioners and enable them to notify masters that there is a place other than the boarding house or saloon where the men to make up a crew can be found. It will enable them to notify seamen that the Government has provided rooms where, under Government protection, they can seek employment and make contracts without the interposition of outside parties interested in securing directly or indirectly a fee from master or seamen or both. Statements from shipping commissioners in reply to inquiries upon this subject by the Bureau may be found in Appendix A.
By the act of June 26, 1884, section 10, Congress made it unlawful in any case to pay any seaman wages before leaving the port at which he may be engaged in advance of the time when he has actually earned the same, or to pay such advance wages to any other person. The penalty for the violation of this law is a fine of four times the amount of wages so advanced and imprisonment of the person paying advance wages for a period not exceeding six months, at the discretion of the court.
This provision of law is one of the most liberal and humane of our statutes for the protection of seamen. It has brought our law upon the subject up to the advanced point to which Mr. Plimsoll, Lord Brassey, and others interested in the British mercantile marine sought, without complete success as yet, to bring the British law. Under the British law the shipping articles may contain a stipulation for payment to or on account of the seaman, conditionally on his going to sea in pursuance of the agreement, of a sum not exceeding the amount of one month's wages. The limitation of the advance note to one month's wages was the result of agitation and the inquiry of a committee of Liverpool merchants, comprising Messrs. Allan, Forwood, Ismay, MacIvar, Williamson, Ballantine, and others well known to the shipping world. In their report the committee said:
We think the advance note is one great cause of the deterioration of our seamen; without it the crimp's occupation would be gone; there would be no inducement for him to get worthless scamps to sign articles. He now ships these men for the advance notes alone, and the man gets little or no benefit from it. To the sailor by profession the want of an advance note would be no hardship; he would be free from the competition of these worthless fellows. Without the advance note, a better average of men would be kept up, and the objections now existing with the parents of decent boys who have a taste for the sea against their entering that profession would be removed, or, at any rate, modified.
In 1884 Congress, by the same act, provided that it shall be lawful for any seaman to stipulate in his shipping agreement for an allotment of any portion of the wages which he may earn to his wife, mother, or other relative, but to no other person or corporation. False claim to this relationship was made punishable by a fine of not exceeding $500 or imprisonment not exceeding six months, at the discretion of the court. This form of allotment is in use in Great Britain, where the sum to be allotted, however, may not exceed one-half the wages.
It is a matter for profound regret that the law concerning allotments and advances of wages as passed in 1884 was not allowed a fair trial. It undertook to accomplish very much, to abolish the crimping system, prevent the spoliation and encourage the providence and independence of the American seaman. Such an attempt was certain to encounter the determined opposition of those who had profited by the abuses under the old system. The obvious way to attack the new law and render it objectionable to the owners and masters of vessels was for the boardinghouse keepers, shipping masters, and crimps to throw obstacles in the
way of the shipment of crews and thus delay the clearance of vessels. It is not disputed that so sweeping an act as that of 1884 would necessarily have caused some temporary inconvenience to owners, masters, and to seamen themselves, accustomed to a different order of things, from the better order which the new act sought to establish.
Doubtless there were instances where commerce was unavoidably impeded by it, but all these difficulties would have disappeared with time for adjustment to the new law. The secret spring of the persistent attack upon the act of 1884, it is believed, was to be found in those who made profit out of the seaman under the old order, and, to secure its restoration, set about to make the new order objectionable to owners and masters. Great Britain twenty years ago underwent a similar experience, and Lord Brassey is authority for the statement:
The promoters of mass meetings to protest against the abolition of the advance note are not the chosen and trusted representatives of the seamen, but the crimps, who alone make profit by this evil custom.
Congress was induced within two years to amend the act of 1884, and by section 3 of the act of June 19, 1886, a seaman may now stipulate for an allotment of any portion of the wages which he may earn "to an original creditor in liquidation of any just debt for board or clothing which he may have contracted prior to engagement, not exceeding ten dollars per month for each month of the time usually required for the voyage for which the seaman has shipped, under such regulations as the Secretary of the Treasury may prescribe." This amendment has virtually revived all the abuses possible under the old system of advance wages.
The form of an allotment note to an original creditor is as follows: VALID ONLY ON COMPLIANCE WITH THE LAW.
The undersigned hereby declares that he is the origiual creditor of the seaman who has made the within allotment note; that said seaman is justly indebted to him in the amount thereof for board or clothing; that the within allotment is to cover such indebtedness; that said indebtedness was contracted prior to said seaman's engagement for the voyage therein named; and that no part of said indebtedness was for money paid to said seaman or other person.
(This space reserved for receipts of cash installments.)