The Covid-19 pandemic has worsen the already challenging circumstances seafarers face and it does not help that government support remains lacking.By Ina Alleco R. Silverio, Philippine correspondent, Maritime Fairtrade
Advocates for the labor rights and welfare of seafarers marked the 26th anniversary of National Seafarers Day on September 25 and held an online forum to call attention to what they said was the deplorable situation Filipino seafarers continue to face.
The groups Migrante International, Migrante Philippines, the International Seafarers Action Center (ISAC), and the Mission to Seafarers as well as Catholic and protestant church-based instituions organized the gathering which was also attended by seafarers and their families.
Migrante International chairperson Joanna Concepcion said that Filipino seafarers comprise a sector of overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) and as such contribute significantly to the Philippine economy through their monthly remittances.
Concepcion explained that when the Covid-19 pandemic exploded in March 2020, seafarers from all nationalities including Filipinos continued to work, transporting much-needed goods across long distances and without the necessary protection needed to ensure that they would not be infected.
Tragically, however, seafarers all over the world are among the most severely affected by the pandemic and the international lockdowns. By the end of July 2020, four months after countries closed their borders, over 200,000 seafarers globally were stranded, forced to stay aboard their vessels with no crew replacements as port authorities refused them entry.
“The conditions of seafarers internationally have never been 100 percent secure because of the nature of the industry and the policies of various shipping companies that give priority to profit-making often at the expense of ship workers. It’s not surprising that the pandemic worsened the conditions experienced by seafarers,” she said.
The migrant rights leader told Maritime Fairtrade that Filipino seafarers specifically have all been neglected by the Philippine government which has for the longest time not been responsive to the serious difficulties they face when it comes to labor rights and social welfare.
“Since the lockdown began, over 100,000 seafarers working on cruise, cargo, and fishing ships have lost their jobs. Instead of giving them assistance to ensure that they can return home safely to their families, the Philippine government delayed its help until so many became stranded aboard ships or ports all over the world. Their contracts expired, and what savings they had with them were depleted. It has been a very harrowing situation for seafarers and their worried families,” she said.
According to research by the ISAC, Filipino seafarers comprise more than a fourth (400,000) of the 1,647,500 global total number. There are 774,000 officers and 873,500 ratings. They serve 92,295 merchant ships and transport 1,976,491 in deadweight tons.
Unions can help seafarers to assert labor rights
Since the pandemic lockdown started, more than 150,000 Filipino seafarers have lost their jobs due to the stoppage of operation in the major cruise and cargo companies. Many of them suffered months of being stranded on the ship, in foreign cities, and even in the local quarantine sites in the Philippines and in their hometown, before they were allowed to return to their families.
A spokesperson from the International Transport Workers’ Federation, Inspector Arvin Ivan Peralta, shared that the ITF has documented thousands of cases of seafarers experiencing violations against their labor rights.
“From our numerous interviews during inspections on ships – especially Flags of Convenience ships – we’ve discovered that seafarers have to contend with so many challenges like lack of income, delayed remittance and wages, and the lack of government support,” he said.
Peralta said that they want to help seafarers become unionized so they can enjoy the benefits that come with being union members such as the protective welfare provisions in collective bargaining agreements (CBA).
“Our goal is to unite all seafarers so they can assert their rights and enjoy them to the fullest extent of the law. They work so hard and under often stressful conditions even as they prop up the economy with their remittances. The least that can be done for them is to help them get what is their due by way of just wages, sufficient benefits, and safe occupational health and safety conditions,” he pointed out.
Not enough help from government agencies
Maritime engineer Xavier Bayoneta of the Concerned Seafarers of the Philippines (CSP) said that when the pandemic hit, many governments including the Philippines failed to come to the rescue of seafarers.
“Take for instance how the Philippine government promised a one-time US$200 or PHP10,000 financial assistance to all OFWs affected by the pandemic. What happened to this? Only less than half of seafarers were able to get this supposed relief benefit,” he said.
He said that seafarers they interviewed only received PHP8,600 (US$170) each for their respective families as part of the Department of Labor and Employment’s (DOLE) AKAP under the OFWs scheme. “Akap” is Filipino for “embrace,” and the PHP8,600 covered repatriated seafarers’ transportation costs to return to their city or province, their two-week quarantine expenses, and their swab tests.
Bayoneta decried how government agencies mandated to support OFWs including seafarers have been less than helpful to their clients. He mentioned the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA) and the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (OWWA) as among the agencies which failed to support seafarers in their time of need.
“Seafarers and other OFWs have had to apply for this assistance, and many have reported how they never received a response on their applications regardless of the DOLE’s announcement of its supposed achievements when it comes to helping repatriated OFWs,” Bayoneta said. “They are very good at collection (collecting fees), but very bad when it comes to protection (protecting seafarers and other OFWs).”
Government must rescue stranded seafarers
Migrante Philippines in the meantime continues to appeal to the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) to speed up its efforts to rescue stranded Filipino seafarers in China and have them immediately repatriated. The group’s chairperson Arman Hernando said that 29 stranded Filipino fishing crew are on board three fishing vessels. They have been reportedly abandoned by their recruitment agency and their Taiwan-based principal.
“They have been doing their best to keep safe, but the threat of getting infected with Covid -19 is very serious. Their living conditions are also terrible and worsening,” he said.
Hernando’s group and the SEA Network as well as relatives of the stranded seafarers held a protest in front of the DFA offices to condemn what they said was the “slow action” of the department to help their seafarers.
Hernando also said that the DFA and other adjunct agencies should improve their systems to provide repatriated OFWs with safe quarantine areas, mass testing, tracing, and medical attention. International health agencies continue to document that the Philippines has the highest Covid -19 outbreak in Southeast Asia and the Pacific, with cases reaching 20,000 a day.
The groups also demand that manning agencies and shipowners immediately release pandemic-affected seafarers’ earned wages, hazard pay, termination pay, leave pay, and medical benefits.
Seafarers suffering from mental health crisis
Another urgent issue for seafarer support groups is the mental health of seafarers in crisis situations. London-based priest Father Herbert Fadriquela who ministers to stranded seafarers in the United Kingdom said that the stress they experience causes depression among said seafarers.
“They worry about their families back home and not being able to provide for their needs. They worry about getting sick and are afraid of getting hospitalized. We have also documented some cases of Filipino seafarers entertaining suicidal thoughts. They need all the support that we can give them to ease their worries. We provide counseling to those who ask for it, but not everyone is willing to unburden their problems and we cannot force them to do so,” he said.
One seafarer, Ariel Gapuz, said that the mental health crisis among seafarers is exacerbated further by the fact that discussing mental health issues seems to be taboo among their ranks.
“Resilent mental health is a major factor when it comes to work-performance for us seafarers. There are so many pressures and problems that can affect how one thinks, feels, and works. There should be mechanisms to help us cope with issues that arise while we’re on board and not only after our contracts end and we’re back on land,” he said.
A country worth returning to
Many organizations and individuals issued messages of solidarity for National Seafarers Day, and among them was former Bayan Muna (People First) Party’s House Representative Neri Colmenares.
Attorney Colmenares who also chairs the National Union of People’s Lawyers (NUPL) said that seafarers should be made aware of the very important role they play not only in helping to keep the economy afloat but in charting the direction of the government.
“There are so many of you,” he said, addressing seafarers. “You put your health and very lives on the line to ensure that goods keep coming on time from country to country, port to port. You are very far from your families most of the time, and your sacrifices ensure that they and the economy benefit from your hard-earned remittances.
“You must use your collective voice to defend your rights, and we will always support you in your efforts. Together we can work to rebuild our country and make it a country you will really want to return to.”
Finally, Colmenares expressed full support for the demands of the seafarers’ advocacy groups and called on the Duterte government to support appeals to the international community and governments to provide safe green lanes in ports and airports so that returning seafarers and other migrant workers can safely be repatriated.