More help for seafarers facing crisis

Medical emergency, suicide.

The International Seafarers’ Welfare and Assistance Network (ISWAN) and its branch in the Philippines continue their efforts to inform as many seafarers as possible regarding the Seafarers’ Emergency Fund (SEF). 

The SEF is a fund that gives immediate, essential aid to seafarers and their close families directly involved in sudden and unforeseen crises. While individual seafarers cannot apply to the fund, a welfare organization can apply on their behalf.

The grants, between US$250 and US$5,000, are available for immediate hardship needs of a seafarer, such as for food or emergency accommodation up to a maximum of five nights, emergency medical expenses for a seafarer, spouse, partner or children, and repatriation. The last is for exceptional cases where all other options have been exhausted.

Tragedy in the family

ISWAN shared a case of one seafarer and his family who are dealing with a serious illness. Two family members of seafarer John Reyes (all names were changed for privacy reasons) were diagnosed with cancer in 2021. They were in great need of money to cover the overwhelming costs of treatment.

John and his wife, Marilou, had taken their pre-school son Joseph to a hospital where the doctor noticed that a small lump on the boy’s neck had doubled in size in just one week. After numerous hospital visits and tests, the boy was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. 

Joseph had to undergo chemotherapy three times a week, but John was forced to return to sea because it was the only way to earn a living and to cover Joseph’s medical treatment costs.

Marilou stayed at home to take care of Joseph, but unfortunately, John was stranded in Manila for four months before he was finally able to embark.

In a tragic turn of events, Marilou herself was diagnosed shortly after with a type of bone cancer. She had to start chemotherapy and be admitted to the hospital for treatment every 21 days.

While the family managed to secure some financial support from several organizations for their son’s treatment, this was not enough.  John’s salary was far from being enough to cover the costs of treatment for both Joseph and Marilou. The savings of the family were soon depleted.

The family contacted ISWAN in the Philippines, and ISWAN applied to the SEF on their behalf. The maximum grant available was approved and the funds were sent to the hospital to pay for chemotherapy for both Marilou and Joseph.

“We still have a lot of medical expenses to meet, but the grant significantly eased the burden on my husband. He was able to focus on his work. When he was still onboard a ship, he remained in touch with us every day to check on how we were doing,” Marilou said.

Strictly for emergency use only

The SEF has strict standards for those applying, and ISWAN explained that it should only be accessed if alternative funding is not available. For instance, it cannot be used as 

long-term funding for social security replacement or for situations for which other sources of relief are available.

Seafarers who at the time of emergency have not been employed for the past 12 months can apply, as well as immediate relatives who have long-term or ongoing health issues, or have a permanent disability and are undergoing palliative care with limited chances of recovery.

Seafarers who have received assistance before can make more requests to the fund within a duration of 12 months.

ISWAN Regional Director for the Philippines and South East Asia Renato Pablo Jr explained that organizations applying on behalf of seafarers or their close relative should provide the means to purchase the needed goods and/or services. 

“The SEF will not release monies directly to a seafarer or family member, but the exception is when the applicant organization is not able to help make the requisition,” he explained.  The organization is also required to submit a simple report to confirm how the grant was spent and to provide receipts.

“If there are any unused funds after two months, they should be returned to the SEF with a report,” Pablo said.  He added that when there is a reasonable opportunity to recoup the grant from some other legally responsible party, such as ship owners, employment agencies, and flag states, the organization should use its best efforts to recoup such funds.

“It should do this using either its own facilities or through the facilities of a similar group that may be better suited to the task, including ISWAN,” he said. Any funds so recouped will be returned to ISWAN and credited back to the SEF. 

Social interaction is important for seafarers’ mental health 

In an effort to protect the welfare of seafarers, ISWAN undertook the second phase of Social Interaction Matters (SIM) Project in June. The project was first launched in April 2020 to help maritime stakeholders improved social interaction on board vessels to boost crew wellbeing.

When the Covid-19 pandemic raged and many seafarers were forced to stay onboard their ships between November 2020 and September 2021, the project conducted research into the impacts, barriers and drivers of social interaction among seafarers in the form of live trials on board several vessels.  

The research was funded by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) and the Red Ensign Group (REG). These groups sponsored the project with the help of Trinity House and funding from the government of the United Kingdom.

Primary among the project findings is the importance of social interaction among seafarers as it facilitates a mental reset and rest from work. “It promotes the development of stronger relationships between crewmates, nurturing familiarity and trust, which in turn facilitates improved team cohesion, motivation, mental health, and safety outcomes,” the report said.

In an interview with Maritime Fairtrade, seafarer Batang Peney, who started out in the early 1990s, agreed and said it is easy for a seafarer to have mental anxieties and emotional problems and social ties are important.

“We are far from our families, and we always worry about them and how they are doing health-wise. Some have relatives who are undergoing continuous medical treatment and the seafarer’s salary is all they have to rely on. All these worries take a toll on any seafarer, but some keep their worries to themselves until it gets so bad that they practically explode,” he said.

Batang said it is important for seafarers to have the support of their colleagues and even the ship’s leadership.

“If your crewmates are not aware of what you are going through, they cannot help you. If your superiors don’t know that you have personal problems, they will not be able to help ease the pressure on you by adjusting your work hours or schedules so you can get better rest,” he said.

Batang Peney works as a supervisor on an European vessel. His tasks include observing work processes and to provide recommendations to the head of the technical department. He also addresses concerns that pertain to vetting inspections, port states, flag states, ship insurance, and others.

Batang Peney with happy colleagues.

Suicide 

In May 2020 as the Covid-19 pandemic was just beginning, a Filipino crew member committed suicide on board a cruise ship. According to a report by the United States Coast Guard, a Filipino crewman on the Virgin Voyages’ Scarlet Lady cruise ship died of “apparent self-harm.”  

The 32-year-old Filipino seafarer, whose identity was not disclosed, was found dead in his cabin on Friday night, May 22. He worked as a hotel utility employee.

In May 2020 alone, six cases of death among seamen were recorded globally, and five of them were suicide.

A harmonious working relationship is important to support seafarers’ mental health.

Support of the ship’s leaders

The SIM report also asserted that the support of the ship’s leadership is very important in ensuring social interaction among seafarers.

“Engaged and visible leadership, which displays empathetic people skills, is vital to support and provide ‘permission’ for the crew to participate in social activities,” the report said.

Because the mood of ship crews is highly vulnerable to external influences, concrete steps are needed to keep the mood positive. The SIM report emphasized that this positive mood can be maintained with “supportive leadership, social activities, competitions, sufficient rest time, reliable and adequate access to Wi-Fi, good food, the celebration of special occasions, and the existence of a diverse and inclusive environment on board.”

It was also discovered that separation of work and rest time is important. These boundaries, the report pointed out, should be established and maintained because of the detrimental impact on seafarers’ well-being if they are not.

The report recommended the appointment of a voluntary Social Ambassador on every ship to help put together social activities and promote crew engagement. The shore-based leadership teams and/or the ship’s senior officers should appoint an ambassador or ask any of the crew who is willing to volunteer to manage social interaction activities.

Recommended social activities fall under the following categories: sports, food and drink gatherings, entertainment, including the use of technology, and finally, activities which are relaxing and calming.

Batang Peney with happy colleagues.

Top photo credit: iStock/ PokPak05

All other photos credit: Batang Peney

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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