Philippines mulls over ban of seafarers transiting Red Sea

Following recent Houthi attacks on shipping vessels, should Filipino seafarers be given a say on whether or not they will sail in the Red Sea or should there be an outright prohibition? Different views on the issue are arising as the Philippine government mulls over the possibility of imposing a ban on all Filipino seafarers transiting the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden.

The Houthis have been targeting ships in the Red Sea region since November last year in what they termed as a show of solidarity with Hamas, a terrorist group, combating Israel in Gaza. The war started after Hamas-led militants attacked Israel on October 7, killing 1,200 people and taking 250 hostages.

The Association of Licensed Maritime Agencies (ALMA), an alliance of 70 manning agencies in the Philippines, has expressed reservations and protested against the proposal as the Department of Migrant Workers (DMW) announced that it wants to implement stricter safety measures to protect Filipino seafarers in the wake of casualties.

Secretary Hans Cacdac said the recent series of incidents, such as the seizure of car carrier Galaxy Leader in November 2023, and attacks on bulk carriers MV Tutor and Transworld Navigator, involved large numbers of Filipino seafarers.

On June 12, the Houthis attacked the Liberia-flagged 82,400-dwt bulk carrier MV Tutor in the southern Red Sea using an unmanned surface vehicle and anti-ship missile, causing the engine room to flood. Three hours later, the vessel was hit with a missile, killing one crew member. The remaining crew, 22 of whom were Filipinos, abandoned the ship, which sank six days later.

The MV Transworld Navigation had 27 Filipino seafarers aboard. The 178,000-dwt bulk carrier was crossing the Bab al-Mandeb strait when it was attacked on June 23. This was the fourth time the ship has been targeted.   

Cacdac said the continuing attacks necessitate continuous security and risk evaluations with maritime industry partners, the Philippine Navy, and the Philippine Coast Guard. The proposed ban will focus on three shipping companies: Evalend Shipping, Ray Car Carriers, and True Confidence Shipping, owner of MV True Confidence.  The prohibition could be extended to more ships, however, as the DMW reviews records of ships that the Houthis are targeting. 

MV True Confidence is a Barbados-flagged bulk carrier managed by Third January Maritime, a Greek company, and owned by True Confidence Shipping, a Liberian shipping company. The vessel was attacked on March 6, causing the first civilian casualties of Houthi attacks on merchant shipping during the Red Sea crisis. Three seafarers died during the attack, of which two were Filipinos.

The DMW has announced that the manning of ships owned by the principals or shipowners of MV Galaxy Leader, MV True Confidence, and MV Tutor would no longer be processed. The DMW will require all shipowners to provide affirmation letters to declare they will not employ Filipino seafarers on trips through the Red Sea or Gulf of Aden.

“While this is not an absolute prohibition, what we are attempting with the new guidelines is to improve the safety of Filipino seafarers by not allowing them to travel on ships that travel to high-risk zones,” Cacdac said in a press briefing.

As of last count, 78 Filipino seafarers have refused to sail through the affected areas.

Second engineer Nixon Asejo, killed in the Houthi attack on MV Tutor. Photo credit: Nickalyn Paghubasan Asejo (daughter of Nixon Asejo).

Loss of income, remittances

Manning agencies are not in agreement with the planned ban. Director of ALMA Capt. Jose Remo Librodo said they had conducted a survey and a majority of members did not agree with the ban. He said ALMA supports the right of every seafarer to decide for themselves whether or not to join ships transiting through high-risk and war zone areas, and a complete ban will cause a big problem to the seafaring industry.

“It will mean a loss of income and our remittances,” Librodo said.   

Other industry players have pointed out that a ban would cause principals to recruit seafarers from other countries.  

In April, the DMW released the first order allowing seafarers the right to refuse to sail after the International Transport Workers’ Federation and International Bargaining Forum (IBF) included the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden in the list of “War-like Zones” or WLZs.

Under Department Order No. 2, licensed manning agencies (LMAs) are required to sign an “affirmation letter” that guarantees that the ships Filipino seafarers are set to board will not navigate WLZs. The letter will include the vessel’s detailed itinerary and should be submitted to the DMW during the documentation of crew employment contracts or before their deployment.

The affirmation letter executed by the LMAs with the seafarers’ consent must be uploaded to the DMW’s Online Processing System together with the processed Standard Employment Contract.

The Maritime Industry Authority (MARINA), however, supports a proposed ban. In a statement, MARINA Administrator Sonia Malaluan said “No value or money can replace the life of a seafarer. Safety is non-negotiable.”

The IBF Warlike Operations Area Committee (WOAC) has included into existing conditions the designated IBF High Risk Area for Southern Red Sea and Gulf of Aden and the rights of seafarers to refuse to sail into the area with repatriation at company’s cost and compensation equal to two months basic wage.

“The decision to include seafarers’ right to refuse to sail was not a step taken lightly as this could negatively impact global trade, but the safety of the seafarers is paramount,” the IBF WOAC said.

Seafarers must give a notice of seven days prior to entering the area, given the logistical constraints of passage and the technical arrangements of disembarkation in a safe port and repatriation.  Those who are onboard vessels within the High Risk Area or are due to transit into the High Risk Area within the seven-day window from the initial date of publication, will not be able to exercise their right to repatriation.

In the meantime, should a vessel which was not scheduled to sail through the High Risk Area but has received instructions to cross within the seven-day notice period, seafarers will have the right to refuse to sail in the area. They will be repatriated at the company’s cost and receive compensation equal to two months basic pay.

Tribute to killed seafarers

In a tribute to the seafarers who were killed in the attacks, industry players released a statement marking June 25 International Day of Seafarers. 

“We call for States with influence in the region to safeguard our innocent seafarers and for the swift de-escalation of the situation in the Red Sea. We have heard the condemnation and appreciate the words of support, but we urgently seek action to stop the unlawful attacks on these vital workers and this vital industry. We hope that the world takes a  moment to recognize the immense contribution that seafarers make to the global economy and the unjust circumstances they are facing in the Red Sea and across the world.”

The statement was signed by executives of the Asian Shipowners’ Association (ASA), the European Community Shipowners’ Association (ECSA), International Association of Dry Cargo Shipowners (INTERCARGO), International Association of Independent Tanker Owners (INTERTANKO), International Association of Ports and Harbors (IAPH), the Federation of National Associations of Ship Brokers and Agents (FONASBA), and others.

Photo credit: Pixabay/ dendoktoor

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