30-year-old Jesus (Jess) Canaleta’s life was on track – he was happily married and despite the challenges created by the Covid-19 pandemic, he was making a good living. On 3:40 a.m. September 13, 2021, his world was turned upside down when on a break from his job as a utility supervisor for a cruise ship, the car that he was driving, with his wife and two other friends inside, was involved in an accident.
A 20-wheeler truck ahead of him blew a tire, went out of control and the cargo trailer hit Jess’ car, which spun and overturned at least two times before it fell broken on the highway. Ayesha, his seven-month pregnant wife, and one friend died on the spot. Another friend passed away in her sleep three days later in hospital and doctors said she appeared to have a bad nightmare just before she died, most likely caused by trauma from the accident.
It took 30 minutes before Jess was rescued and taken to the hospital. He survived, albeit with serious injuries on his right leg, which cost him his seafaring job as he is not able to handle the heavy physical demand of working on a ship.
Maritime Fairtrade spoke at length with Jess about his life and recovery, not only from his physical injuries but from his depression as well. The former seafarer has suffered from constant days of darkness where he wanted to give up and take his own life.
During the interviews, however, he realized that he still had much to live for and that he still has much to offer the world with his skills and talents. He understood he has to move on from the personal tragedy and start a new chapter in his life.
Started out as chef in burger joint
“I used to work in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) on a visitor’s visa working towards a resident visa. It was 2016 and I stayed with a relative and I worked for a burger restaurant. It was tough because the climate was brutal. It was always so hot; the air conditioning units did not help much especially during the summers,” Jess said.
To stay employed, he had to make some sacrifices, the most painful one was when his father was dying and when he eventually died, JR was not able to return home.
“I was told that if I went home, I would have had to surrender my passport, work permit and resident certificate to my employer, because he was the one who paid for my employee visa and work permit. I would not have been able to return to the UAE afterwards and if I apply again, I would have had to pay for all the fees to process the permit myself,” he said. Rather than lose his job and chance to return to work, Jess decided to stay and continue to work.
Experienced discrimination working on cruise ship
In 2019, Jess applied to work on a ship. His father was a retired cargo ship seafarer, and he had always been Jess’ inspiration for hard work. He took a chance and applied for a position on a cruise ship which he saw had openings, and despite not having any seafaring experience, he was accepted.
“I was hired as a kitchen steward officer/supervisor of a cruise ship in Dubai. I quit my job at the restaurant and went home to the Philippines. I had to take basic seaman training for two months so I would know what to expect working on a ship, and I had my papers processed,’ he said.
Life on the ship was challenging. Almost immediately, he experienced discrimination from Italian colleagues who resented the fact that he was not really a seafarer in the sense that he did not study and train for the job for four years like many of them.
“As a steward officer, I was overworked by a callous boss who resented my starting out as a supervisor instead of climbing the ranks. This boss was the supervisor of my own immediate supervisor, and he deliberately gave me the hardest tasks. He gave me work that wasn’t even part of my job scope like loading supplies and cleaning decks. He even cut the hours I was supposed to have rest or sleep,” he shared.
The situation got so stressful that Jess ended up smoking heavily. “I used to smoke, but only one or two cigarettes daily and only in the company of others. Back on the ship, I smoked a pack a day,” he said. Thankfully, his immediate boss was sympathetic and gave him advice on how to handle the situation better.
“He told me to stand up for myself and speak out if I felt that I was being exploited, and that’s what I did. I said ‘no’ to orders when it was my rest period and when I knew there were others who were really meant to do the work I was being made to do,” he said.
Jess also wrote a letter to the hiring agency that recruited him, “but nothing came out of it. It was really out their control.”
However, on the whole, he learned much from his seafaring experience and despite the difficulties of working with less than supportive superiors, he enjoyed the work.
“I don’t regret it. I also feel that I understand my father better and what he did to help our family, to make sure that we had a roof over our heads, that we had what we needed,” he said.
Lost seafaring job when Covid-19 hit
Jess had just returned to the Philippines after finishing his contract when the Covid-19 pandemic hit. Like the case of many seafarers in the travel industry, he was unable to go back to work because travelling was temporarily banned and cruise ships were prohibited from operating.
To earn money, he used the car he had bought with his savings to get bookings from people who needed to travel but could not use public transport. He drove people long distances and made good money.
“I’ve always been a careful driver, and all of my clients gave me good reviews. Even then I was already thinking of saving up to invest in a small fleet of cars for a full-time business,” he said.
His background in working as a cook for a restaurant and as cruise ship assistant to the cook also emboldened him to open a small food cart business and he sold “pares” – a set-meal usually made up of rice or noodles with a savory stew with meat, offal or tofu.
“That business really took off in 2020 and up until the Covid-19 curfew restrictions were imposed. My wife and I made a good living from it, and I really worked hard on it because I enjoyed cooking for people. The problem was I expanded too soon by renting a bigger space. The restrictions became more stringent and the eatery lasted only a month a half. We returned to running the food cart,” he said.
Constant suicidal thoughts on Jess’ mind
That was Jess’ life up until that fateful night when the truck hit the car he was driving and he lost his wife and his friends, and broke his right leg and foot. He said that if he had been able to walk in the early days of his recovery and after his wife was buried, he would have killed himself.
“I was thinking of stabbing myself with a knife, or I would drink bleach. It was really bad, and I had lost hope,” he said.
Jess said that he had spoken to the driver of the truck that caused the accident, an elderly man, who cried and expressed remorse.
“He even admitted that he was surprised that I survived the accident given how bad it was,” he said sadly. “In the beginning, I was so angry and I wanted to kill him, but after meeting with him, I decided to forgive him. It was an accident, and he did not mean for it to happen. If God can forgive even the worst sinners, who am I not to give forgiveness to anyone who asks for it?”
Received no compensation
The trucking company paid for the burial of Jess’ wife and friends, as well as the hospitalization bill of the friend who died at the hospital. Jess’ bills, however, were excluded by the trucking company, which insisted that he was the one at fault and not their driver.
“The lawyers settled it among themselves. I got nothing. If it were not for my best friend, I would not have been able to pay my hospital bill,” he said. His best friend, Glen Capiz, has been friend with him since they were 13 years old and he was among the first to rush to the accident site.
Jess was also not able to get financial assistance from any of the national government agencies assisting Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) or even just local Filipinos in sudden crisis situations.
“Processing requests for help was too difficult – they had too many requirements, and I was not in any physical or mental state to get the documents they needed,” he said.
He did, however, receive small amounts of money from the local government and a few non-government organizations helping seafarers.
At the time of this interview with Maritime Fairtrade, Jess is undergoing physical therapy. Instead of getting the recommended three sessions a week, he opted to get only one session every week because he could not afford the expense at P2,000 (US$39) a session.
Jess said: “I really feel bad about being a burden on my family. My mother, my siblings and my closest friends who have stood by me, are actually the only people I’ve been speaking to all this time.
“It’s been very, very hard and even now, I don’t know what to do beyond what I do every day – wake up, eat, bathe, get therapy, sleep. I am very grateful that I survived the accident despite the pain of losing my wife. I am very grateful to my family for continuing to support and encourage me at my lowest point in life.”
Appeal for donation, please contact Jess if you are able to help
Name: Jesus Ilagan Canaleta Jr
Email: [email protected]
Cellphone number: 09270413746 / 09457247499