Migrants call for an end to oppression and exploitation of seafarers

By Nuel M. Bacarra

Migrante International (MI) demanded an end to “oppressive and exploitative work environments” affecting Filipino sailors on the occasion of the International Day of the Seafarers last Sunday, June 25.

The group pointed out Filipino seafarers still receive lower wages when compared to counterparts from ship-owning nations.

“Filipino seafarers suffer from precarious work since they are perpetually considered as contractual workers — employed for 11 months or less — who do not attain regular status despite many years of service under the same employer,” MI pointed out.

MI said the seafarers from poor countries such as the Philippines are victims of the Flag of Convenience (FOC) scheme prevailing in the global shipping industry where ship-owners from rich countries register their merchant ships in other countries to avoid financial charges or restrictive regulations in the own countries.

These ships usually bear the flag of Panama, Liberia, Belize, Malta, Bahamas, Cameroon, Cambodia, Bolivia, and Barbados that are known to have more relaxed tax laws.

Despite being very poor countries, Panama, Liberia and the Marshall Islands accounted for 44.3% of the world’s cargo, the group revealed.

“For workers on-board, this mean very low wages and poor on-board conditions and, most likely, on contractual basis,” MI said.

It does not help that skilled workers, including the seafarers, are marketed abroad as cheap and docile labor under the Philippine government’s neoliberal labor policy that continues under the Ferdinand Marcos Jr. administration, the group added.

“Filipino workers are also made to spend so much for countless trainings, certification processes, tuition, and government fees and exactions before they can work on a ship, for a short period of not more than 11 months,” MI explained.

After the contract, Filipino seafarers do not enjoy security of tenure and have to join the long queue of some 300,000 jobless seafarers applying for jobs, it said.

“This, despite successive contracts of service with the same ship-owner and manning agency,” MI said.

Filipino seafarers performing repairs and maintenance tasks. (BB Telan/Kodao)

‘Fake Magna Carta’

MI said the Philippines must demand for better working conditions for its seafarers under the International Labor Organization’s Maritime Labor Convention of 2006.

Under the instrument, maritime sailors are guaranteed financial security in case of illnesses, injury or death while on an employment contract even without proving these are work-related.

“Unfortunately, the Philippine government doesn’t have an implementing law on this despite its nominal ratification in 2012 during the time of the late President Aquino,” MI said.

The group also expressed support to House Bill 4438, or the Magna Carta of Filipino Seafarers, originally filed by Arlene Brosas of Gabriela Women’s Party and the Makabayan bloc.

The proposed measure aims to provide seafarers with all-out protection before, during and after employment, specifically in the event of maritime accidents, epidemics or pandemics and other natural o man-made crises.

The migrants group however lamented that HB 4438 had been superseded by HB 7325 they said shipping and manning companies managed to sabotage.

MI said HB 7325 has an anti-seafarer escrow provision where the seafarer has to wait for many years until the Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court have affirmed a positive judgment from lower courts.

The group pointed out that this provision changes the long-held practice of labor cases being final and executory at National Labor Relations Commission level.

Seafarers now brand the bill as “Magna Carta of Ship-owners” as they are the beneficiaries, MI said. # (RBV)

Filipino seafarer dies of Covid-19 in San Francisco, groups worry about hundreds on board cruise ship

A Filipino seafarer has reportedly died in a San Franciso hospital due to the dreaded corona virus disease, a group of Filipino-Americans in the Californian city reported.

According to the Filipino Community Center (FCC) based in the said city, the seafarer contracted the virus on board the Grand Princess Cruise Ship that has been docked at the San Francisco Cruise Terminal since the early part of March.

The FCC learned of the unnamed sailor’s demise Saturday morning.

Fox 2 KTVU confirmed the crew member’s death, quoting Grand Princes spokesperson Negin Kamali saying: “All of us at Princess Cruises are deeply saddened to report that one of our team members who was working on Grand Princess passed away, from complications related to Covid-19. Our hearts go out to his family, friends, team members and all who are impacted by this loss. All of us at Princess Cruises offer our sincere condolences.”

Another Filipino crew member of the ship has tested positive with the disease, the League of Filipino Students-San Francisco State University said in its Facebook page.

The Grand Princess Cruise Ship was on its way to Hawaii last February 21 when it learned that two male passengers on a recent trip to Mexico have died of the virus.

The ship sailed to Oakland to let off its passengers and then returned to its home port of San Francisco to start its quarantine procedures.

The Grand Princess is a sister ship of the Diamond Princess that was placed under a four-week quarantine in Yokohama, Japan last month.

According to the FCC, there are still 78 Filipino workers of the original total crew of 1,111 on board and are undergoing quarantine.

A total of 438 Filipino workers earlier left the ship, along with 11 Chinese crew members.

The Grand Princess quarantine ended last Saturday, April 4, the California Office of Emergency Services told a press conference organized by the FCC.

Filipinos in San Francisco demands transparency, testing and treatment for hundreds of crew members still on board the Grand Princess Cruise Ship. (FCC photo)

Wrong strategy

Following the Filipino seafarer’s death, however, labor and community organizations amplified demands for transparency, testing and treatment for the hundreds of workers still on board the ship.

Representatives from the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITWF) and other labor advocates described the cruise ship as an “incubator” for the corona virus.

They cited a Center for Disease Control and Prevention study of the Diamond Princess that exposed the disastrous results of quarantining passengers and crew in ships’ tight quarters.

More than 700 of the 3,700 people onboard Diamond Princess tested positive for COVID-19.

Workers remaining on board the Grand Princess are at high risk of exposure and infection until the ship is decontaminated, the ITWF said.

ITWF Northern California Inspector Samantha Levens added, “This is not a problem created by COVID-19. What we are witnessing is existing inequalities and exploitation of seafarers being heighted and exposed by the pandemic.” 

Swati Rayasam of the Alliance for South Asians Taking Action described the treatment of these workers as “appalling” and “inhumane.”

Terry Valen of the National Alliance for Filipino Concerns for his part said, “There are no plans in place, as far as we know, from the Office of Emergency Services to house the workers if they can’t get home because of international travel restrictions. Right now they are being asked to stay on the ship.” 

Filipinos in San Francisco demands transparency, testing and treatment for hundreds of crew members still on board the Grand Princess Cruise Ship. (FCC photo)

Fellow Filipino crew members from the Grand Princess who were repatriated in mid-March shared their concern for those still on board.

“I hope that this all ends soon, that they can all go back home to their families here [in the Philippines] who are left wondering, especially the spouses and children,” an audio message from a former Filipino Grand Princess crew member played during the press conference said.

An open letter to Princess Cruises and the Philippine government also said that more than two weeks after being flown back to the Philippines, the workers are still pushing for testing and treatment.

Only a portion of the over 400 workers who were quarantined in a facility in Tarlac, Philippines, were tested for COVID-19. They have since been sent to their home provinces. 

Crew members from India still on board conveyed their concerns in a video uploaded online three weeks ago.

They pleaded to the Indian government to be “evacuate[d] from the ship as soon as possible.”

Community organizations are echoing these concerns.

The Grand Princess Cruise Ship is one of the many ships currently stranded at sea scrambling for safe harbor.

Thousands of passengers and crew members remain on board in at least 15 cruise ships worldwide, with workers representing dozens of countries and nationalities, the FCC said.

Port closures, flight restrictions and border closures add to the direness and urgency of the situation, the group added.

 “As frontline workers, we in the maritime industry literally keep the world running. And our rights and voices must be at the forefront of the fight against this global crisis,” ITF’s Levens said. # (Raymund B. Villanueva)