Seafarers face unprecedented stress, suicidal thoughts

A high risk job made worse by the pandemic.

In a discussion with Maritime Fairtrade, Renato ‘Jun’ Pablo Jr hesitates to comment on whether the support Filipino seafarers receive from the national government and its agencies is sufficient. As regional director of the Philippine office of the International Seafarers’ Welfare and Assistance Network (ISWAN), Pablo would much rather focus on things that can be done to improve conditions for their beneficiaries than dwell on the negative.

He will, however, admit that much can still be done to protect seafarers.

“The maritime sector – specifically the labor force of seafarers – are among the most regulated and protected in the world. We have our own maritime laws and labor laws protecting seafarers, and the Philippines also abides by international statutes. We keep abreast of developments, of course, but the cases and incidents of violations against seafarer rights still happen and we have to do what we can to improve conditions that will put an end to these violations,” he said.

Pablo’s organization, ISWAN, is a membership organization that promotes and supports the welfare of seafarers all over the world. ISWAN works with shipping companies, unions, and other welfare groups to implement the statutes and provisions of the International Labor Organization’s (ILO) 2006 Maritime Labor Convention.  

“Our work is primarily focused on various aspects and areas of advocacy, education, and social welfare for seafarers. The different kinds of assistance we provide are in the areas of pre-deployment, deployment, and post-employment,” he explained.

ISWAN in the Philippines focuses on things that can be done to improve conditions for their beneficiaries rather than dwell on the negative.

Welfare support during the pandemic

The last two years have been particularly busy for ISWAN in the Philippines. The Covid-19 pandemic hit the country hard and millions of Filipinos lost their jobs or were forced to make extreme adjustments, seafarers among them. 

There are numerous stories and reports about thousands of seafarers who were stranded at sea or were abandoned by the agencies as countries closed their borders and restricted foreign ships from docking in their ports.

Pablo said that throughout these challenges, however, the goal remained the same for seafarers.

“There were so many difficulties, but all throughout, the goal of seafarers was to remain employed. They were very worried for their health and safety, they worried about the situation back at home where their families were, but they still wanted to keep their jobs,” he said.

The entire seafaring industry, Pablo said, was also determined to continue, “but of course without spreading the virus from country to country. It was a tough balancing act.”

One of the core programs of ISWAN is the provision of 24-7 counseling help to seafarers; during the height of the pandemic, hundreds called their helpline in the various countries. The multilingual helpline is called SeafarerHelp and Yacht Crew Help.

“It was the most we could do at the time – seafarers would call, desperate or depressed, afraid of what was happening. So many uncertainties. We’ve made sure that they always had someone to talk to when they needed it, and when they reached port, they had access to counselling services, food, and vaccines,” he said.

Suicidal thoughts

The stressful situation that seafarers faced when the pandemic exploded caused many of them to harbor suicidal thoughts.

“Trying to keep safe from Covid-19 and having to struggle with sudden drastic changes onboard their ships put a toll on many. Our helplines are confidential, but there have been times when we’ve had to break protocol and share information with agencies and ship owners that they have crew members whose mental health was on the brink,’ Pablo said.

Related to this, Pablo said that social media also has an impact on the mental health of seafarers. “When they see posts of their loved ones being happy, seafarers feel comforted; but when it’s bad news that they keep reading, as can be expected, they also feel bad. They have to be equipped with skills to deal with this.”

Because of the rising number of mental health issues among seafarers, Pablo said that ISWAN gives workshops on mental issues that seafarers commonly experience. 

“We do this before they start their contract. It’s important that they get even just an introduction on the many cultural differences they’re most likely to encounter so they can handle situations better when dealing with people from different nationalities,” he said. “When the pandemic hit, worries about getting sick and dying away from their families also took a toll on many seafarers.”

Last October, ISWAN was one of the awardees of the 2021 SAFETY4SEA Virtual Awards for assisting more than 44,000 seafarers worldwide since the start of the pandemic. The awards recognized the industry’s outstanding practices for Safety Excellence, Sustainability, Training, Technology, Initiative, Covid-19 Resilience, Personality, and Leadership.

Raped numerous times by fellow seafarer

Making psychological and mental health counselling available is very important for seafarers because they are always at risk for mental issues while at sea, but counselling has only been widely accessible in the last decade or so. 

Take the case of Hunter, not his real name, who did not get help when in 2007, he was raped by a fellow seaman when they both were drunk. He shared with Maritime Fairtrade that he was only 27 at the time, and he had been working onboard for two years when the incident happened.

Hunter recounted: “He was a big man, black, much bigger than I was. He pushed me down on the table and ripped off my shorts and raped me. It was excruciating. I cried and screamed, but no one came to help me. 

“Later on, I found out that he did the same thing to others. No one reported it to the ship captain because they were afraid. I was raped two more times by the same man. 

“When my contract ended, I did not want to work as a seaman again. I became suicidal and depressed. I could not tell my parents, who were very worried for me.  When I told them eventually, they wanted to go after the man who raped me and even wrote to my old company. The company said that they could not do anything because the man had already left.” 

Hunter said that he would have had the strength and will to fight back if he had counseling immediately after the incident. 

Supplementing what the government provides 

As mentioned earlier, Pablo would rather not comment on the weakness of government agencies when it comes to services for seafarers.

He said: “We choose to see ourselves as partners with the government, other seafarer support groups, shipping companies, and of course seafarers. An honest assessment? Filipino seafarers will always have issues to contend with or complain against, and many of these complaints are valid. 

“Our organization responds by providing what it can by way of programs and services, we’re into giving immediate assistance. We leave the struggle for reforms to others even as we’re aware of the current situation.” 

The proof of this is the different welfare programs that ISWAN offers. Funded by membership subscriptions, foundation grants, and sponsorships, the welfare programs are easy to access and are responsive to the immediate needs of their beneficiaries. 

Pablo said that while they provide assistance to seafarers, it is important that seafarers also know about the assistance that government agencies, such as the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (OWWA) and the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA), provide. 

“This is where information comes in. Many seafarers don’t know the different services that different agencies and NGOs can give, the available help they can access. We always say that partnerships are important to promote these services so that more seafarers and their families can get help,” he said.

There is still much to be done to protect seafarers’ welfare.

Financial assistance 

In August 2021, seafarer Jeff Escoto came down with Covid-19. Because he was not working, he had no regular salary to rely on, so he submitted an application to ISWAN’s Seafarers International Relief Fund (SIRF), a cash assistance program that is meant to help seafarers who contracted Covid-19.  

After his application was approved, in his message of thanks, Escoto said that he was hesitant in giving his personal details to people and groups he was not familiar with, but because he needed the help, he did.

“The fund is for Covid-19 treatment, hospitalization, and recovery. Even now, we continue to receive requests from seafarers for this,” Pablo said. 

Last December, ISWAN also introduced the Hardship Grant to seafarers affected by Supertyphoon Odette (also known as Rai). The typhoon ravaged Western Visayas, and residents of over 10,000 communities were severely affected, among them many seafarers and their families. 

“We gave each seafarer who applied for help US$150 each, enough for one week’s supply of food. 

Maritime piracy: Life and death issue for seafarers

For all their efforts to help seafarers on welfare issues, ISWAN, however, is highly concerned about one issue that they cannot comprehensively address: piracy.

“It’s a problem that the international maritime industry continues to face. Apart from the serious economic damage that piracy wreaks on shipping companies and adjunct businesses, the impact on the seafarers whose ships fell victim to pirates is tremendous,” Pablo pointed out.

On February 9, 2021, the Greek tanker Maria E was attacked and boarded by pirates northwest of Sao Tome and Principe after leaving Lome, Togo. 

Seafarer Bigboy De la Fuente documented the entire ordeal with pictures and posted them on his Facebook page. His pictures showed cabins ransacked, windows shattered when the pirates shot at them, and finally the condition of seafarers who locked themselves in the citadel upon the orders of their captain. 

“It was so hot, and in the first few hours, we had neither food nor water. We had to drink water from the evaporator,” De la Fuente said in one of his posts. 

Thankfully, no one was hurt and the pirates left, taking private belongings of the crew.

According to the recently released annual report of the ICC International Maritime Bureau, the year 2021 saw the lowest recorded level since 1994. The Bureau attributed the drop in incidents to the campaign of governments, maritime agencies and shipping companies to address the problem, but also to the lessened shipping activities because of the pandemic. 

The IMB Piracy Reporting Centre received 132 incidents of piracy and armed robbery against ships in 2021. This was lower than the piracy incidents and armed robbery in 2020. The rise in recent years was said to be caused by the increase of piracy and armed robbery cases that were reported within the Gulf of Guinea and in the Singapore Straits.

“This is good news, but we really cannot let our guard down. We’ve given assistance to many survivors of pirate attacks and their families, and their stories are very harrowing. Seafarers end up traumatized, and their families are the same,” Pablo said.

Putting together their experiences in assisting piracy survivors, ISWAN has released the manual “Good Practice Guide for Shipping Companies and Manning Agents: Humanitarian support of seafarers and their families in cases of armed robbery and piracy attack.”

“Seafarers are now being trained on how to handle piracy incidents – what to do if they are attacked or even held captive. What we’ve done is to put together our own recommendations on how to plan for this, and how shipping companies and government agencies should inform and support families,” Pablo explained.

“We want to supplement the processes that companies practice by citing our own experiences helping over 200 seafarers who were captured by pirates.  It’s also long overdue that all different parties in the maritime industry, both in the public and private sector, put together a comprehensive plan of action to help seafarers when they face pirate attacks.”

Below piracy photos credit: Bigboy De La Fuente.

Cabin ransacked by pirates.
Seafarers locked themselves in the citadel when pirates boarded their ship.
Pirates looted the private belongings of seafarers.
Shattered windows when pirates shot at the ship.
Bullet holes after pirates shot at the metal door.
Bullet casings left by pirates.

Better times ahead 

For 2022, Pablo said that they are hopeful that things will be better for seafarers because shipping companies and seafarers are more equipped to deal with the changes the pandemic has wrought. 

“We’ve made adjustments to health protocols and country restrictions. We’re confident that the maritime industry will bounce back, and so will seafarers,” he said.

Specifically for Filipino seafarers, Pablo said that they have proven their resilience, time and again.

“Filipino seafarers are hardworking and committed to their families. Their love for family and the aim to improve their economic conditions are what drive their efforts. This is why they can tolerate so much hardships. This is also what makes them among the best in the global maritime industry.” 

Images credit: ISWAN

Ina Alleco R. Silverio

Ina Alleco R. Silverio

Ina Silverio, our Philippine correspondent, is an award-winning investigative reporter. She is also the author of two books.

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