Philippines acts to protect seafarers’ safety in war zones

After the death of two Filipino seafarers in missile attacks in the Red Sea in early March, the Philippine Department of Migrant Workers (DMW) has taken initial steps to help boost the safety of Filipino workers at sea. The DMW first asked the International Bargaining Forum (IBF), a global forum for maritime industry stakeholders, to change its classification of the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden areas from high-risk areas to war-like areas, the highest risk level. 

For war-like areas, charters and shipowners are obliged to pay for medical assistance and repatriation costs, plus any insurance premium, for seafarers who fall victims to attacks in the areas. 

After the Houthi attack on the M/V True Confidence earlier this March, the IBF extended the war-like area from 12 nautical miles off the mainland Yemeni Coast to an area covering the southern section of the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, stretching across to the Eritrea coast, encompassing the Bab El Mandeb Strait in its entirety within the Gulf of Aden. 

“Ships transiting the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden are Houthi missile targets, putting seafarers’ lives in grave danger. We strongly urge charterers, operators and shipowners to avoid passage through the area until there is no risk to the safety of seafarers from further attacks,” said IBF. 

“The IBF will be asking all employers and union affiliates to lobby their respective governments to intervene and act in the safety of seafarers.” 

The IBF comprises of the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) and maritime employers under the Joint Negotiating Group (JNG), including the International Mariners Management Association of Japan (IMMAJ), and the Korean Shipowners Association. 

The Philippine DMW also provided an online facility that will allow Filipino seafarers to report their voyage routes and exercise their “right to refuse” voyages within the war-like areas declared by the IBF, which increase the liabilities and operational costs of shipowners and operators. 

“Our seafarers are not soldiers or military personnel, and we cannot allow them to risk their safety and lives by operating in areas with conditions similar to a war situation,” said DMW officer-in-charge, Hans Leo Cacdac. 

Shipping companies and licensed manning agencies will also be required to report ship movements through the DMW electronic Overseas Welfare Monitoring System. Moreover, the DMW and the Maritime Industry Tripartite Council (MITC) are calling for enhanced security measures on ships navigating these volatile sea routes, including maritime security escorts and onboard personnel. 

The MITC, composed of Philippine government agencies, seafarers’ groups, and maritime stakeholders, serves as a consultative body on policies and programs for the welfare and protection of seafarers. 

“The DMW shall open an electronic portal as well as dedicated hotlines through which our seafarers may inform the department that they are exercising their right to refuse sailing,” Cacdac added. 

During a recent virtual press briefing, Cacdac announced the development of an online registry where Filipino seafarers can declare their refusal to sail when they learn of their ships’ plans to navigate the Red Sea or the Gulf of Aden. He said downloadable forms for the “right to refuse sailing” will be accessible on the DMW’s website and provided to licensed manning agencies for distribution among seafarers. 

Furthermore, a hotline will be available for seafarers to report their refusal to sail in these warlike zones, ensuring their safety and rights are protected without fear of reprisal. 

“Because there might be seafarers who refuse to sail but fear reprisal if they fill out the form. So, there’s a hotline that the seafarer can call to declare their right to refuse sailing,” Cacdac said. 

Eleven Filipino crew members from the bulk carrier M/V True Confidence, which was attacked by Houthi rebels, arrived safely at NAIA Terminal 3 in Pasay City on the afternoon of March 12, 2024. Photo Credit: Overseas Workers Welfare Administration

Filipino crew members from M/V True Confidence. Photo credit: DMW

Affected seafarers are granted financial aid of P50,000 (US$890) from the DMW, provided with livelihood assistance worth P20,000 from the Department of Social Welfare and Development, and received scholarship and training vouchers from Technical Education and Skills Development Authority. Photo credit: DMW

Seafarers also received medical and psychiatric evaluations from the Department of Health. Photo credit: DMW

Captain hails safety move for seafarers 

Filipino Captain Manolo “Noli” Ebora commended the initiative to boost seafarers’ right to refuse to sail in hazardous areas, citing past incidents. Having navigated high-risk sea routes since his first voyage in 1984, Ebora possesses a deep understanding of the challenges faced at sea. 

“As a seafarer and ship captain, I commend the government’s aim to grant mariners the ‘right to refuse to sail’ when their vessel passes through the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden, especially during these days. We have been hearing about incidents involving ships in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden, where our adversaries are no longer just pirates but also the Houthis,” Ebora told the Maritime Fairtrade in Filipino. 

According to Ebora, passing through the Gulf of Aden was very dangerous when ships did not have armed guards due to pirate attacks in the past. 

“There were seafarers back then who refused to sail through, and as a result, they would go home. However, they faced repercussions in their company and were unable to return because seafarers did not have the right to refuse to sail back then,” Ebora recalled. 

Ebora underscored the risks faced by seafarers in these regions and expressed his support for the government’s decision to prioritize their safety by allowing them to refuse sailing in such perilous conditions. 

“As a captain, before I sign any contract, I first inquire if the ship will be passing through the Gulf of Aden, and if so, I ask if there are armed guards onboard. If there are none, I will not take the assignment,” Ebora added. 

And if there comes a situation where the vessel suddenly needs to pass through, Ebora said he would refuse to do so if there are no armed guards.  

“Even if there were armed guards, the ship was safe to pass during those times because we were only avoiding pirates,” he explained. 

“But nowadays, the battle has changed, so to speak. Now, trained military or ex-military personnel are boarding the ship and using helicopters, leaving us defenseless, and it’s still dangerous even with armed guards when passing through the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden,” he said referring to the current conflicts in these areas. 

Ebora urged fellow seafarers to exercise their right to refuse if they find that their ship will traverse high-risk areas and war zones, emphasizing the importance of prioritizing their safety.  

Captain Manolo “Noli” Ebora. Photo credit: Captain Manolo “Noli” Ebora

Guidelines for Filipino seafarers’ safety in high-risk zones

On March 27, the DMW issued guidelines for licensed manning agencies to safeguard the “safety and well-being of all Filipino seafarers onboard ships and in light of the increasing incidence of piracy, hijacking, and/or armed violence against ships passing through the Red Sea, Gulf of Aden, and surrounding areas/waters.” 

Moreover, shipowners and operators are required to provide extra compensation and security measures for seafarers opting to continue their journey in these areas. 

Seafarers must be given sufficient time and resources to express their decision to either proceed with the voyage or decline participation in passages through these regions. The passage of ships with Filipino seafarers in these zones must be promptly reported as a significant event in the Overseas Filipino Worker (OFW) Welfare Monitoring System. 

“Failure to report such significant event in a timely manner will result to the imposition of sanctions in accordance with prevailing policies, rules, and regulations,” the order stated. 

Manning agencies are responsible for implementing seafarers’ decisions to refuse sailing in high-risk areas and conflict zones, ensuring their immediate and secure repatriation to the Philippines if they choose not to proceed.  

A confirmation form, accessible on the DMW’s official website, must be signed by seafarers and submitted to the DMW via email at [email protected], with copies sent to the Licensed Manning Agencies (LMA) and principal/employer. 

Top photo credit: Captain Manolo “Noli” Ebora. Captain Manolo “Noli” Ebora.

The best maritime news and insights delivered to you.

subscribe maritime fairtrade

Here's what you can expect from us:

  • Event offers and discounts
  • News & key insights of the maritime industry
  • Expert analysis and opinions on corruption and more