Women seafarers rise to the occasion

Asserting rights, proving worth.

The strength and resilience of women seafarers were tested when the global COVID-19 pandemic hit. It has been widely acknowledged that while COVID-19’s impact cut across all sectors of society across the world, the repercussions on women have been significantly worse given the specific vulnerabilities that women have. 

Among all women, those from the working sectors have had to struggle the hardest to survive. Women migrant workers, in particular, faced significant challenges.  In the maritime sector, women also proved their mettle.     

According to the International Maritime Organization (IMO), women represented only two percent of the world’s 1.2 million seafarers and only one percent are sea-going sailors. In the meantime, 94 percent of the women in maritime are employed in the cruise industry. 

In the first months of the pandemic, women seafarers experienced the same terrible conditions as their male counterparts. Seafarers in cruise, cargo and fishing vessels stayed additional months onboard their ships with limited food, water, and supplies and with no adequate medical attention. 

They were stranded at sea and prohibited from disembarking while their families back home pleaded with the government to help them to come home. Some were able to return, albeit with health problems, trauma, and no job while many were still waiting for salaries and allotments due them.

Now, two years later, women seafarers are speaking out even more actively and advising other women in the maritime industry on their experiences and lessons learned.

Standing up, speaking out 

From Tacloban, Leyte, ship captain Jasmine Costello Lavarda said that the experiences she had during the first months of the pandemic were highly stressful, but she was very grateful that the company she worked for was very supportive.

A graduate of the Maritime Academy of Asia and the Pacific, Lavarda is the first woman senior dynamic positioning officer and first woman master mariner from the Philippines. She is currently the only woman in command of 60 to 150 people of an Arctic exploration deep dive vessel.

Lavarda said: “I got home from a contract in March 2020 just before the lockdown. The company I was working with was very fearful and most of the flights were canceled. Many seafarers were not able to return to their rotation because embassies were closed. Many needed to extend their contracts until restrictions were lifted in June 2020.” 

Lavarda said that she spent a total of 65 days in quarantine.

“I had to take a total of 25 swab tests throughout the five contracts I worked on since the pandemic started. My company requires crew to undergo swab tests before leaving the port and after arrival whether or not any of them were feeling ill. It was a great thing for us that the company covered the costs of the swab tests and hotel quarantines. We know that many companies deduct these costs from the salaries of the seafarers.” 

Lavarda said that she recognizes the government’s efforts to have testing available in the ports and help seafarers arrange hotel quarantines. She was able to leave quarantine just before Typhoon Odette (international name Rai) which hit the Philippines on December 16, 2021. She felt lucky to be at home during the pandemic.

“I was able to continue working because my company took care of me. Still, it has to be said that working through the pandemic was a team effort among seafarers, the government, the companies and the seafarers’ families,” she said.

She was especially thankful to the frontliners who were always cheerful even when stressed.  Her advice to young seafarers: what is most important is how one interacts with people, whether as a cadet or a master.

“Even when we’re still just starting out, it is important that we always find new things to learn, and enjoy each moment. We work with people from different nationalities and cultures, so we must be able to respect differences and opinions of others even as we retain the right to be assertive,” she said.

Specifically for women seafarers, Lavarda emphasized the importance of standing up and speaking out against bullying and harassment.

“Even among men, bullying is still prevalent, but the impact and repercussions on women are harder. We must not be afraid or hesitant to ask for help when we experience harassment of any form – physical or verbal. It takes collective effort and awareness to stamp out bullying. Everyone on onboard must understand how wrong it is,” she said. 

The ship captain also said that there remains “a lot of corruption” in the maritime industry, including the existence of the infamous “backing system” wherein one uses their influence to gain favor for employment or work arrangements even at the expense of others who are qualified.

“Do not be afraid to ask questions and be serious about being competent and requiring competence from people you work with,” she said.

Women leaders helped seafarers tided over crisis

Another notable leader in the Philippine shipping sector is Atty. Iris V. Baguilat. She is the president of Dohle Seafront Crewing-Manila, a German crewing company. She leads a team of 90 people, 78 percent of whom are women. They manage a total of 2,000 seafarers worldwide.  Baguilat is also a seasoned legal practitioner and a consultant in Maritime Law.

“The biggest challenge for our crewing company is managing the movement of our seafarers during the pandemic. We had to contend with numerous checkpoints and restrictions which made it difficult for seafarers to travel. They needed to get to their medical check-ups and clearances, arrange their passports and other papers and get to the airports to travel to their ships, and all the health and travel protocols were quite hard to immediately adjust to,” she said.

The maritime lawyer shared that most of the executives of crewing companies are women and the executives of nine big companies joined forces to lobby for the seafarers. As a group, they wrote to everyone in the industry who can convince the government to assist. 

“We campaigned for seafarers’ right to travel during the pandemic,” she said.

Ships carry food, medicines, medical equipment, raw materials, and other goods (a total of 90 percent of the world trade), and the Philippines is the biggest supplier of seafarers/maritime workers (around 25 percent). Despite this, Baguilat said their group had to push hard so that seafarers were counted as frontliners and granted exemptions from the lockdown.  

“People, even those in government, think that seafarers earn a lot and because of this they already have substantial resources to tide them over during emergencies. This isn’t the case for many seafarers and this was proven during the first year of the pandemic. We also had to fight for expanded cash aid for displaced seafarers and their families,” she said.

In 2020, to support seafarers and to push for the recovery of the maritime industry, 64 manning agencies managing 172,000 seafarers formed the ALMA Maritime Group (Association of Licensed Manning Agencies). Traditionally, members of the group are competitors but they chose to work together to help the industry recover from the crisis. Women leaders are at the forefront of this cooperation and among their first actions was to have seafarers qualify for A1 vaccination status. 

Vaccination was a necessity for employment, so it was a priority.

Baguilat said: “Policymakers respect and recognize the importance of the maritime industry to the economy but have little understanding of how things are done within it. It’s important to have advocates of the industry speak out and provide guidance to policymakers. 

“For instance, not all maritime workers are seafarers, many who support the seafarers like the manning companies do so from offices so they need to keep the offices open for the seafarers.” 

Baguilat said that the biggest problem for seafarers is the need to extend their contracts because of port restrictions. This means they need to stay on board for longer than what is healthy.

“The truth is, even though they have rest periods onboard, seafarers can only completely rest, physically, mentally, and emotionally, at home. I find it difficult to explain to laypeople that staying on board for more than the contract length causes fatigue and fatigue is dangerous for ship crew members. 

“Tired crew can cause inefficiencies and accidents that affect the entire crew and may endanger the safety of the crew and the ship.” 

She further shared that her company had to assist sick and ill seafarers who were refused the right to disembark by port authorities, thus depriving them of adequate medical assistance and exposing the rest of those onboard to infection.

“One example was when a ship with one sick crew member had to sail from one country to another so that the crew member can disembark!” 

Baguilat’s final message was for young women who want to be seafarers.

“We all know that gender shouldn’t be an issue, but it unfortunately still is. Women seafarers must work together to assert our competence and support each other against the many challenges that come from working in a male-dominated industry.” 

Women seafarers are partners in safety and security

The challenges of seafaring were also discussed by Captain Ma. Cristina Javellana. She is the first female captain of a fuel tanker, and the general manager of Hafnia Product Tanker Fleet, Dubai.

Javellana said: “The maritime industry is adversely affected by Covid-19 and climate change, especially seafarers. Many were forced to extend their contracts and I myself had to stay on board for 10 months straight. 

“I saw how many seafarers lost their jobs because of the long waiting time and difficulties in crew changes due to the restrictions imposed by host ports/ countries. These affected the trading patterns of vessels as ships were forced to take shorter, faster trips because deliveries are more urgent. All these had serious effects on the well-being of seafarers on board.” 

Javellana pointed out how the sustainability of the maritime transport industry demands a diverse working environment and because of this, gender equality is important.

“Women do not compete with men for work onboard ships. Women are capable of taking over and performing duties that their male counterparts are not able to do. For instance, women perform very well in tasks that require a calm and positive attitude. Women are also known for their ability to quickly learn new things, innovating and reinventing themselves and the way work is done. I’ve seen these in the different ships I’ve been on.”

Javellana is one of the first women to work in a chemical tanker vessel.  

“Women in chemical tankers are very rare and it wasn’t easy. It demanded so much more than hard work and competence. I struggled to maintain the right attitude towards work and coworkers 100 percent of the time,” she said.

Beyond knowing the fundamentals as a navigator, she also had to learn how to manage risks daily as safety on board chemical tankers is a constant concern.  

She advised female maritime students and cadets to be “like sponges” and absorb as much knowledge and skills as they can while they move forward.

She added: “Women have courage and so much potential as seafarers. My tip is for women seafarers to remain true to themselves while they do their best to be part of the community on board. The safety of everyone on the ship depends on and is the responsibility of each crew member. Everyone is involved in ensuring the ship’s and the crew’s security. Women can contribute much to these efforts.” 

“Stand your ground”

Another welcome development is how women are also gaining leadership roles as seafarers aboard gas tankers.

Chief Engineer Shireen Dominguez works onboard gas tankers with Northern Marine Management. She is also a part time Online Pre-departure Orientation Seminar (PDOS) facilitator and maritime instructor in the Philippine Center for Advanced Maritime Simulation and Training. In 2015, she was the Marine Ambassador of the Philippine Transmarine Carriers, and in 2019 was declared an Outstanding Marine Professional by the Maritime Industry Authority (MARINA).

Dominguez is the chief engineer and only woman on board a gas tanker vessel that carries 43 thousand tons of liquified petroleum gas.

“The work, to be honest, is often stressful and always demanding, but I am glad to share that the number of women willing and able to do the work aboard gas tankers is increasing.”   

Dominguez encouraged maritime students, especially women, to develop resilience.

“Strength of will and determination, not gender, are the requirements for success. Yes, there are still many challenges for women working as seafarers, but there are already rules and regulations that protect women onboard. We must stand our ground and fight for our right to be there. 

“There is no excuse for harassment and abuse and it is important to report and talk about discrimination and harassment that women seafarers encountered. We have to do it also for the sake of future women seafarers so that a few years down the road, more women can work in the maritime industry.” 

Dominguez’s call for women to fight discrimination was echoed by Danielle Nicole Rasonable, a galley steward of a gas tanker, vlogger and owner of a clothing business, Nicole Fashions.  Her last contract was nine months long but she had to stay onboard for 11 months without shore leaves because of the lockdown.

“Life aboard is already difficult during normal times and seafarers need to be physically and mentally fit to endure. Harassment and bullying serve to worsen the situation, so students already have to prepare for difficult situations – including incidents of harassment or discrimination,” she said.

Rasonable stressed the importance of protecting oneself by taking action like resisting and reporting to the ship authorities to prevent harassment incidents from happening again.  

“Being afraid to report enables the wrongdoer and makes it harder for other women to report what they experienced. Women should believe in themselves and must not allow feelings of victimization to take over. We should trust and uphold the processes in place that aim to help women protect themselves and each other,” she said.

Rasonable has a following on social media where she shares life onboard with her followers so that they can become familiar with the challenges and small joys that come with the job as a seafarer. She said that sharing her own experiences on social media also encourages her to be better.

“I also hope to inspire other women to choose seafaring as a career,” she said.

Photo credit: iStock/ donvictorio

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