Will working for 38 hours straight and under the scorching heat of the sun kill an otherwise healthy seafarer?
The family of Filipino seafarer is asking the Philippine government to help secure justice for their relative whom they said died of work-related exhaustion October 9.
According to reports, 39-year-old seafarer Albert M. Coleto, originally from Tago, Surigao del Sur, and his crew, were made to work round the clock on October 6 until October 7. They worked again midnight of October 7 until 4 am and then had two hours of sleep. Albert returned to work at 6 am and at 6.30 am, he felt dizzy and suddenly collapsed. He was given emergency treatment but died.
Albert’s relatives alleged that the seafarer died because of exhaustion from his work under extreme conditions. Albert worked for Star Gywneth, a bulk carrier that was anchored in Mina Saqr, a city in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) at the time of his death.
His relatives are calling on the Philippines’ Department of Migrant Workers (DMW) and the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (OWWA) to investigate the circumstances surrounding his death.
Albert’s fellow seafarers informed his agency StarOcean Manning, which contacted his sister, Mary Grace Coleto-Salinas.
In an interview with Maritime Fairtrade, Albert’s brother-in-law and husband of Mary Grace, Bon Salinas, shared what their family went through to get Albert’s body home and what they are continuing to do to get to the bottom of what happened.
The day after they received the news, Mary Grace and Bon went to the StarOcean Manning office in Manila and met with three representatives of the company.
“We were told that the only information they had at the time was that Albert’s case was “pathological” and that they did not have a copy of the death certificate or any other information surrounding his death,” Bon narrated.
Mary Grace and Bon then wrote a request to the manning agency that Albert’s body be autopsied. They also asked for a copy of his death certificate, and for his body to be repatriated.
In the meantime, they also asked to be allowed to go to UAE and view Albert’s body. The family was referred to Pandiman Philippines, which the manning agency said was a third-party private organization appointed by the shipowner to assist StarOcean Manning to process obligations to deceased seafarers and their beneficiaries.
Albert M. Coleto was laid to rest.
Risks of exhaustion
“On Oct. 12, we received information from Albert’s crewmates. They said that Albert was made to work for 38 hours straight, disregarding the scorching heat in the UAE. He lost consciousness after 39 hours of work with only two hours of sleep. His vitals rapidly declined and two hours after he initially collapsed, he passed away,” Bon said.
“He was a good man, and he never could say no. He did not refuse the orders he was given, and he died because he was exhausted from working so hard for 38 hours straight.”
The following day, October 13, the family sought the help of a friend in the UAE who then went to Ras Al Khaimah Police Forensic Department. The friend was told that there was no autopsy done on Albert and that his body was ready for release. Albert’s death was declared to have been caused by cardiac arrest.
“That very same day, Ras Al Khaimah authorities told us that the documents relating to my brother’s death were put on hold. The manning agency and Pandiman continuously urged us to sign no objection papers so that they could repatriate the body as soon as possible,” Bon said.
It was then that Bon and Mary Grace decided to appeal to the OWWA to conduct an investigation into Albert’s death.
A series of delays took place before Albert’s body could be repatriated as Pandiman Phils and StarOcean alleged that the family refused to give them relevant documents to expedite the repatriation of the remains.
“I emailed Pandiman Phils asking why no autopsy was performed on my brother, and if a request was made. We also asked why we, his family, were not informed. We did not receive any reply, and we also clarify that we did not have any documents related to Albert’s death,” Mary Grace said.
Philippine senator Aquilino Pimentel Jr spoke to DMW about this matter. Pandiman then facilitated the repatriation after they were given authorization by the family. Albert’s remains were finally repatriated and arrived in the Philippines on October 28.
“His role in compelling the DMW to conduct a thorough investigation into our brother’s tragic demise in the UAE is commendable and we are most grateful,” Bon said.
Renowned Filipino forensic doctor Raquel Fortun conducted an autopsy on Albert’s remains.
“There was a last-minute objection by the lawyers of the manning agency and the ship owner because they said their principals were not represented during the autopsy, but Dr. Fortun denied their objection,” Bon said.
As of this writing, Dr. Fortun has not released a final and conclusive report on her findings, but in her initial report, it was stated that Albert had no pre-existing medical condition.
Repatriation of remains of Albert M. Coleto.
Conventions on seafarer health
As Albert was alleged to have been made to work for 38 continuous hours, his company, which allowed it to happen, may be held liable for breaking occupational health and safety provisions of conventions for seafarer well-being.
The International Transport Workers Federation (ITF) in its Human Rights Due Diligence report said the rights of seafarers to a healthy and safe work environment should be respected and treated with utmost care.
“Fatigue and exhaustion are major risks associated with life at sea, especially as owner-operators circumvent minimum safe manning, overwork crew beyond maximum overtime levels, and rely on exploitative working conditions. Seafarers are under increasing pressure to do additional tasks without adequate rest time or training,” the ITF said.
In the meantime, in June 2022, occupational safety and health was recognized as a core labor right and incorporated into the International Labor Organization’s (ILO) Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work.
The ILO Convention 155 on Occupational Safety and Health is now a core convention which must be respected by shipping companies. The convention defines health to include the physical and mental elements affecting health which are directly related to safety and hygiene at work.
The same ILO Convention empowers workers to remove themselves from a situation of imminent and serious danger to life or health without suffering consequences, such as blacklisting.
According to the latest Seafarers Happiness Index, seafarers were unhappy over their workloads, with those who participated in the survey rating their happiness level regarding the concern at 5.8 out of 10.
The report stated: “Excessive workloads also negatively affect seafarers’ health, causing fatigue and burnout. Insufficient rest, sleep loss from manning shortages, and relentless paperwork take a toll both physically and mentally.
“Safeguarding seafarers’ health must be a priority. Proper manning levels, planning, and effective workload management are imperative. Companies must provide adequate personnel, resources, and support to complete assigned tasks. Simply demanding more output without addressing workload can harm seafarers.”
On November 1, Albert’s remains were brought to his hometown in Tago, Surigao, and on November 5, he was buried. The repatriation fees were shouldered by the shipping company, but no other assistance was given to Albert’s family who said they will not rest until they get justice.
“On November 9, we had a meeting with the DMW, and with Assistant Secretary Jerome Pampolina. It seems the DMW has no empathy for the family and discouraged us to file a case. Instead, they wanted to mediate between the family and the manning agency/shipowner’s representative,” Bon said.
Bon said they were deeply offended by what someone at the DMW said.
“They told us that working for 38 hours straight was normal for a seafarer. I retorted that the ship was anchored and the temperature was 40 to 45 degrees Celsius – of course anyone working under those conditions would give out. There was nothing normal about that,” he said.
On the day Albert was laid to rest, Bon made a promise that they will continue to fight to reveal the truth behind what happened to his brother-in-law.
“Rest peacefully, dear Albert. Your battle is now ours and we shall not rest until we see it through,” he posted on Facebook.
All photos credit: Bon Salinas
Top photo: Family members of Albert M. Coleto.