Seafarers face bullying, mental health at risk

Many Filipinos dream of becoming seafarers. Hiring companies make it a point to highlight not only the economic benefits but also the chance to travel all over the world. The popular image of a seafarer is one of a healthy, clean-uniformed individual who gets to travel around the world meeting interesting people and being in glamorous locations.

Still, like other employments, working as a seafarer also has its share of problems, among them workplace bullying. Workplace bullying has become a difficult management problem as company turnovers increase when seafarers can no longer cope. Human resource departments ill-equipped to address cases of bullying tend to let incidents go unresolved.

Concerned Seafarers of the Philippines calling for a stop to bullying.

Racial discrimination, Asian seafarers face bullying 

A veteran seafarer George Ramirez, 54, told Maritime Fairtrade that he experienced bullying in the early years of his career in the early 1990s. He used to work in the engine room of a cruise ship, but has since moved on to work on industrial freight ships.

“Maritime laws to regulate seafarers’ behavior were not strictly enforced in those days. I experienced bullying on board some of the ships I worked on, and I also heard of different stories from other seamen about how they got into fights when they stood up against bullies,” George said.

“On my first job as a seafarer, there were three of us who were Filipinos, and we were with Indonesians and Burmese. It was a new ship, and the higher officials were all white. We felt that those who were brown-skinned were treated differently, with less respect, compared to those who were white.” 

George shared that there were times when Asian seafarers were not allowed to enter the pantry the white staff used, but the latter were allowed to freely enter and use the pantry that the Asians used.

“We also noticed how the ship kitchen staff kept the pantry used by the white seafarers well-stocked with cheese, fruit, and chocolates.  In contrast, our pantry was practically empty – the refrigerator mostly had only water,” he recollected.

The treatment at work was also disheartening for George.

“My white supervisors would have me woken up very early even if I was off duty or during my rest hours, and they would also order me to fix them coffee or fetch something from the refrigerator. I was new on board, so I just went along with it,” he said. 

George was also made to run personal errands for supervisors, including the captain and chief engineer, like washing their underwear and uniforms. What was even more difficult for George was not allowed to suggest recommendations at work, and whenever he made the smallest mistake, he was immediately yelled at and even cursed at. 

“There were even times when I was slapped or punched,” he said.

Like George, other Asian crew members were subjected to bullying in the form of discrimination. During BBQ parties or other public gatherings, they were not invited to eat at the tables which were occupied mostly by white crew members.

“The rest of us Asians just got food and we took it elsewhere. The gatherings were supposed to be open to everyone, but it was hard to enjoy them when we were being treated like we were second or even third-class people,” George said.

Throughout those first years, George gritted his teeth and took all the bullying in stride. He said all he wanted was to keep his job.

“I considered the bullying as a challenge I just had to overcome,” he said. At the same, however, George prayed and hoped for changes.  Change finally began to happen when a new captain came aboard the ship George was assigned to. The man appeared open to feedback, so George mustered his courage to finally speak out about how he and the other Asian seafarers were treated.

“I told the captain about the bullying and the discrimination we were often subjected to, and I spoke of all these in front of the white crewmen. I didn’t care what the white crewmen would say or do to me afterward, I just spoke out. It was a gamble on my part, but I thought either things could go worse or get better,” he said.

George’s gamble paid off. The new captain wrote a report on everything George said, with recommendations for stronger policies to be enforced against acts of bullying, whether verbal or physical. He sent the report to the manning agency as well as to the shipping company.

“The captain also called for a meeting of all the crew and announced that changes had to be made. He stood up for all of us Asian seafarers and said that the white crewmen should immediately change their behavior towards us or face sanctions,” he said.

A support group demands the passing of the Magna Carta Bill, which lists rights of Filipino seafarers.

Female seafarers face more bullying

The shipping industry has gone a long way from the time seafarers like George suffered abuse at work, but still there is much to be done to completely eradicate bullying. The forms bullying and discrimination take these days are not as extreme as during George’s early years, but they still hurt those at the receiving end.

In a 2021 report from seafarerspr.org, it was said that eight to 25 percent of all seafarers have gone through some form of bullying and harassment, and 50 percent of those were female seafarers.  

Some of the findings of the report were echoed in a 2021 paper titled “Impact of Workplace Bullying on Work Performance among Filipino Cruise Staff”, (authored by John Vincent Cabigon, Paulo Gabriel Espejo, Brevin Reyes, and Jefferson Buenviaje). 

Here, the perceived effects of workplace bullying were documented through the personal experiences of Filipino crew members of major cruise lines in the world. The research was conducted through surveys and interviews via the Facebook platform, and conducted within 60 days.

The survey respondents totaled 149 and worked in different departments such as engine, deck, entertainments, casino, hotel operations, food and beverage, galley/culinary, housekeeping, guest relations, finance, medical, and salon and wellness. 

Most of the respondents were between 20 to 25 years old, while a small segment was aged 50 to 55 years old. The majority worked for Norwegian Cruise Lines (16.11 percent), MSC Cruises (15 or 10.07 percent), Costa (12 or 8.05 percent) Holland America Lines (12 or 8.05 percent), while the rest were with Aida Lines, Cunard, Disney Cruise Lines, Regent Seven Seas Cruises, Silver Sea Cruises, Seabourn, Oceana Cruises, Pelican Cruise, and TUI Cruises. 

A large majority of the respondents have a Bachelor’s Degree (72 or 48.32 percent). Most of the respondents were relatively new at the job with most of them (45) working for one to three years, while six of them have been working aboard cruise ships for more than six years.

The highest number of respondents were non-supervisory employees (72) while 26 were supervisors. Fifty-six percent of the 149 respondents were women, while 42 percent were male; the small remaining number declared themselves bisexual. 

Based on the findings, more women responded to the survey and were more engaged in answering the questions. This was even though the women were assigned more work than men, but they were able to complete their tasks at the same time as the men and bisexuals.

Female seafarers more inclined to report bullying

From the findings, a few conclusions were made. Younger staff were more inclined to report incidents of bullying or to call out bullies. Women were also more prepared to approach their supervisors when they experienced bullying from colleagues, and to report supervisors to the higher-ups should they be the perpetrators.

Educational attainment was also seen as a factor in the readiness of seafarers to speak out against bullying. Almost if not all seafarers who took the survey have college degrees.

Two general categories of bullying were documented – emotional bullying and physical bullying. In the survey, majority of the respondents said the proliferation of rumors and gossip was the most prevalent form of emotional bullying in their respective work environments. Other acts documented were public humiliation and shouting at individuals.

Other forms of physical bullying were negative eye contact, damage to personal property to intimidate, throwing things, and outright physical attacks. Physical attacks rarely happened, but negative eye contact was the usual form of physical bullying.

When it comes to work-related bullying, the respondents noted how “unethical communication approaches” was the usual form it took. In cases of social exclusion and humiliation, most respondents said they were likely to ignore the bully, even as they encounter excessive pressure.

When bullied, the seafarers reported the incident to their superior or the ship administration, because if unaddressed, the bullying has a “psychological and behavioral effect” on bullied individuals. When bullied, the seafarers experienced higher irritability, and they suffered fatigue and sleep difficulties. 

Those who experienced bullying admitted their productivity decreased and performance also suffered. They suffered from poor health and well-being, and this led to poor work performance, lowered productivity, reduced job satisfaction, and work engagement.

A support group wants the Filipino government to improve seafarers’ working conditions, engage in collective bargaining, and protect seafarers from bullying, harassment and assault.

No place for bullies 

Based on their findings, the researchers made recommendations to limit if not end workplace bullying.  They said cruise line companies, for instance, should create a Workplace Violence and Harassment Program. 

“This should outline how everyone should behave and treat others. An anti-bullying policy could differentiate reasonable management practice from bullying and encourage managers to use anti-bullying policies as a positive strategy for managing people,” the researchers said.  

Companies should also provide orientation and training workshops to their staff and monitor physical and mental conditions to detect whether anyone is experiencing bullying. The monitoring can be done through periodic seafarer consultations.

Remove bullies from ships

The advocacy group, Concerned Seafarers of the Philippines, said there should be a zero-tolerance approach to bullying. This policy, the group insisted, should be enforced on all vessels and abusive seafarers should be immediately removed from the ship if they continuously harass or bully a colleague. The view of the group is that the maritime industry must have a strict two-strike policy to protect seafarers from bullies.    

As for veteran seafarer like George, the fact that bullying and discrimination are now being widely and openly discussed and, more importantly, seriously being addressed is a very good development.

“It’s no longer considered a taboo subject and those who experience bullying don’t have to suffer in silence but instead have means for redress. The younger generation of seafarers is more aware of their rights and is more assertive,” he said.

George also applauded the fact that more and more shipping companies, as well as seafarer support groups, are implementing programs to address bullying.  The International Chamber of Shipping (ICS) and the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF), for instance, have declared harassment and bullying to be unacceptable. 

The two institutions jointly produced guidance for shipping companies, seafarers, and seafarers’ organizations as well as other parties such as training providers, on measures to take to eliminate harassment and bullying. Primary among the guidelines is if any seafarer complains of having been the victim of harassment and/or bullying, the complaints must be taken seriously and investigated.

As a former victim of bullying, George said, “We are no longer children, why should we demean and humiliate other people who, like ourselves, are working to earn a living? We should focus on working and stop bullying others for fun or to show we’re superior.”

Top photo credit: iStock/ kaipong

All other photos credit: Concerned Seafarers of the Philippines

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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