Filipino mariners: sailing on turbulent seas

(A special report on Seafarers’ Week) 

With the world economic crisis still there, the 24/7 piracy attacks in key waterways in the world, and the continued human rights violations on-board, the Filipino mariners and seafarers had no other hope but to stand, struggle and fight for their rights as human beings and as workers.

By: Noel SalesBarcelona


MANILA,Philippines–With the international economic crisis is not yet for an end, as world economists say, the Filipino mariners face not only the issue of salaries and benefits, but also the problem of safety and tenure at work, as they sail the world’s seven seas.

Risking their lives for the world’s and local economy

The latest data from the government shows that there are 300,000 Filipino and Filipina seafarers are now at sea and they are one of the major contributors on the country’s dollar reserves.

The Trade Union Congress of thePhilippineshad reported last year that the total amount of remittances (in US dollars) by our seafarers grew by 11.2 per cent, at $2.461 billion, compared to 2009. This, according to Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) Secretary Rosalinda Dimapiliz-Baldoz, had been contributing significantly to the Philippine economy.

However, these dollars are more than money; they are the sweat and blood, and even the lives of the seafarers as dangers await them at the open sea. The waves are not their only enemy, or the fumes and coal in the motor chambers, or the hazardous chemicals that they carry in their ships–but also people, in the person of ferocious pirates.

In 2008 and 2009, there had been a hijacking spree at the Horn of Africa. Yes, there were efforts to curb the piracy attacks, but this, according Atty. Joseph T. Entero, president of the newly organized Filipino Mariners and Seafarers Association (FILSEA) are sporadic and not unified, and hence not solving the problem of piracy, at all.

Now, the problem is getting worse and posing lots of dangers to Filipino mariners and seafarers, which comprise more than 20 per cent of the 1.2 million seafarers, manning about 50,000 commercial fleets, 24/7.

The International Maritime Board had reported, piracy attacks had become 24/7 in the Horn of Africa–the world’s most ancient and most important waterway as Somali pirates have already “upgraded” their weapons and boats used in hijacking ships and abducting crews and ship officials. Actually, they are now infesting even the seas, about more than a thousand kilometers from the African continent.

Based on reports, there are still 50 Filipinos who are held captives of the pirates. These, people, says Vic, in his early 40s and a survivor of piracy and had been in the “enemy’s nest” for more than five months, are the most insane peoples that they have met.

“Either they will hit us, or wake us up in the middle of the night, to torture us; the foods that they are giving us are inedible, but we eat it to be able to survive,” he said in an afternoon of chat in a law firm inQuezon City. Because of the bitter and painful experience, he refused to elaborate.

“I am now going home, to our province, to take plenty of rest. When I got here, after our abduction, I was so sick, my mind is not working fine, and I am like crazy! I was very angry, we’re all angry with them (pirates). I am thankful that I got home here, safe. But I don’t want to talk about it again,” he said, with a bittersweet smile in his lips.

But the torture and the unpalatable, if not “sickening” meals are not the only things that are associated with pirates. Lately, the pirates had been killing their hostages, for two apparent reasons: the slow release of the ransom money; and as self-defense against possible attacks from the armed forces of the countries of origin of their hostages and against litigation. And thePhilippineshad its first casualty, early this year.

Last January 26, a Filipino crew in a German cargo ship was shot dead by Somali pirates, off the coast ofSeychelles, about 1,500 kilometers or 932 miles off the Continent of Africa. The victim was identified as Farolito Vallega, 48 and a crew of MV Beluga Navigation.

The death toll among seafarers being held captives by the Somali pirates had already reached to 62, from 2007 – 2011, says the London-based International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF). The ITF also has sounded the alarm as the 1,000 plus hostages under their care are now being used as “human shields” against the anti-piracy attacks.

Based on reports, the ransom money costs from $1.5 to $1.7 million and can get as higher as $7 million. Of course, the amount is not that easy to let go as the ship-owners are also facing difficulty of paying the other damages incurred by the hijacking of their ship: the delay of the shipment, the lost of cargo, and the ballooning cost of insurance of both cargoes and ships that are to pass the high risk waters like the Gulf of Aden, Nigeria, the Indian Ocean, and even the South China sea.

The group, One Earth, One Future had reported that the maritime industry are losing around $7 billion up $12 billion annually as a result of piracy to the key gateways in the world, especially in the Gulf of Aden, in the Horn of Africa. Most of the amount goes to paying the ransom (See Table 1).

The total cost of ransom paid to pirates had reached more than 400 million USD in just two years, having piracy as one of the most lucrative business in the world today.

“The total cost of ransom is estimated to be around double the value actually paid to pirates. The total cost is duplicated by a number of factors, such as: the cost of negotiations, psychological trauma counseling, repair to ship damage caused while it is held captive, and the physical delivery of the ransom money, often done by helicopter or private plane,” Anna Bowden and her team, wrote in their 2010 report for the One Earth, One Future entitled The Economic Cost of Maritime Piracy.

The ship-owners are also forced to pay to the P & I (Protection and Indemnification) Clubs for the surety of the cargoes, the ship and the crewmen. Since the spate of kidnappings and hijacking in theGulf of Aden, the amount being paid for P & I clubs had shoot to more than 200 per cent, or more.

“What is saddening here is the fact that the safety and welfare of our seafarers and the their counterparts in other countries, in the era of piracy and conflicts, had been made into a profit-making opportunity by the big shipping conglomerates in terms of insurance and other fees,” said Entero. This was confirmed by the 2010 report of Bowden, et al.

“In reaction to the growing threat and cost of ransoms, the maritime insurance industry has responded by increasing its shipping rates and premiums, especially in designated high-risk piracy zones. Shipping insurance comes in four main types: war risk, kidnap and ransom, cargo, and hull insurance,” reads the Bowden report.

The war risk insurance being charged by P & I clubs ballooned from $500 per ship, per voyage up to $150,000 per ship, per voyage. The kidnap and ransom (K&R) cost had shoot, around ten folds, as the Bowden report stated. The cargo insurance also shoots up from $25 to $100 and the hull insurance, doubled for the ships that sail in high-risk zones.

P & I club had begun capitalizing for the safety of ships and its crews, says the Bowden report.

But avoiding the Horn of Africa and other pirate-infested zones could also pose a problem in the shipping industry, the trade and pricing of goods, and of course, to the crew manning the ocean-going vessels as the rerouting scheme can cost the shipping industry more than $2 billion annually.

Because of this, the Congressional Research Service of the United States Government stated in their April 26, 2011 report, some governments and ship-owners opt to pay the ransom than to do a reroute.

“Some ship operators (and their governments) reportedly judge the costs of paying occasional ransoms to be far less than the costs of rerouting the shipping around the southern tip of Africa—a longer and more costly trip—or arming merchant ships. Some experts argue the payment of ransoms in the event of vessel seizure has kept the level of violence associated with piracy relatively low. Thus, the payment of occasional ransoms might be viewed by ship operators (and their governments) as a regrettable but tolerable cost of doing business, even if it encourages more piracy,” theUSCongressional report said.

On salaries and wages: declining, if not “frozen”

The burden of the piracy costs, the other costs of shipping operations and the effects of the international financial crunch in 2007 – 2008, is often reflected in the Filipino seafarers’ salaries.

“While there are standard salaries being imposed, supposedly, based on the existing collective bargaining agreements (CBAs) between the ship-owners and the existing unions (ITF and the International Bargaining Forum or IBF) and as stipulated in the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration-Standard Employment Contract (SEC) for Seafarers, there are times that this is not being implemented,” says Atty. Edwin S. de la Cruz, president of the International Seafarers’ Action Center (ISAC).

Ideally, an ordinary seaman could get as much as $1,250; but in Boy’s case, this is far from what is supposedly to receive.

Boarded in a Saudi-flagged ship, Boy says that can only send back home around $235.738 (P10, 000.00). He is boarded on a Saudi-flagged ship, which he did not disclose for this report in fear that his employer would no longer renew his contract.

“Wages of the crew are always kept at a minimum to maintain the level of profit. This is coupled with the high risks, extreme conditions and hardships entailed by work at sea. Despite the strategic importance of seafarers to world commerce, they are among the most exploited and oppressed of workers,” de la Cruz said.

“The merchant ship-owners altogether earn an average annual income of US$380 billion, which is five percent of the world economy. The average annual profit of an individual merchant ship-owner is $5.42 million, but only about US$636,000 goes to the seafarers as wages, showing a clean 800 percent profit in relation to wages,” he said.

In 2009, during the onslaught of the global economic crunch, resulted from collapse of the Wall Street, there had been a decision of freezing the wages of seafarers, regardless of nationality and position inside the ship. This wage freeze, until now, exists.

Meanwhile, there is also discrimination on salaries between Filipinos and non-Filipino officers and crew members.


Ideal (standard) salary (in US Dollars)

Captain 4,500
Chief Officer 3,200
2nd Officer 2,500
3rd Officer 2,350
Electrician 2,200
Bosun 1,700
Able Seaman (AB) 1,500
Ordinary Seaman 1,150
Fitter 1,600
Oiler 1,500
Wiper 1,150
Chief cook 1,600
Mess man 1,000


Flag of Convenience: making fleets floating coffins 

Nevertheless, what makes the Filipino seafarers’ lives more difficult is the existence of the flags-of-convenience (FOCs).

“Most ocean-going vessels in operation are sailing under an FOC where the nationality of the ship owner is different from the nationality of the flag [it carries]. Thus, we have a number of ships owned by German nationals but flying a Panamanian flag; owned by Japanese nationals but flying a Liberian flag; and the like,” says Entero.

The ITF, in 1974, has given this working definition of an FOC: “Where beneficial ownership and control of a vessel is found to lie elsewhere than in the country of the flag the vessel is flying, the vessel is considered as sailing under a flag of convenience.”

FOC had been the scapegoat of ship-owners to have their fleets registered cheaply, to operate tax-free, and to employ cheap labor to man their, usually, substandard ships.

Based on the ITF lists, there are 32 countries being used as FOCs: Antigua and Barbuda; Bahamas; Barbados; Belize; Bermuda (UK); Bolivia; Burma (Myanmar); Cambodia (Kampuchea); Cayman Islands; Comoros; Cyprus; Equatorial Guinea; French International Ship Register (FIS); German International Ship Register (GIS); Georgia; Gibraltar (UK); Honduras; Jamaica; Lebanon; Liberia; Malta; Marshall Islands (USA); Mauritius; Mongolia; the Netherlands; Antilles; North Korea; Panama; São Tome and Príncipe; St Vincent; Sri Lanka (Laos); Tonga; and Vanuatu.

Some critics say that the intensified labor export policy (LEP) of the Philippine Government only makes the FOC system stronger.

““To ensure the steady growth of labor supply, the government, while praising them as the modern-day heroes, considers Filipino seafarers as mere commodities (as) the value of their services are being reduced or diminished to make them more competitive with other supply countries as China, India, Indonesia, Pakistan and other European countries,” says an NGO worker who refused to be named in this report.

Will the Philippines ratify MLC ‘06 for the sake of Pinoy seamen? 

While the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) had said that it is considering the adoption of the Maritime Labor Convention of 2006 (MLC ’06) by the International Labor Organization (ILO), many doubt it will.

On August 12, US-based newspaper Philippines Today quoted Labor Secretary Rosalinda Dimapiliz-Baldoz saying that under the DOLE Labor and Employment Plan for 2011-2016, “the government is considering the ratification of Maritime Labor Convention (MLC) 2006 as it ranks as the top supplier of seafarers in the world, particularly in ratings.”

However, many organizations, including the FILSEA and the ISAC, that the government would do it.

“We have been campaigning for the ratification of the MLC, since 2008,” Entero said. “But until now, there are no concrete actions from the government—either from the DOLE or from the Department of Foreign Affairs,” he added.

The MLC ’06 contains a comprehensive set of global standards, based on those that are already found in 68 maritime labor instruments that the ILO has adopted since 1920.

The primer of the MLC ’06 stated that the Convention consolidates all existing international laws on matters relating to seafaring, such as the creation of a good working environment for seafarers, improvement of pay, and accountability of ship-owners, the receiving country, and the sending country if ever seafarers are put to risk due to substandard shipping practices and unfriendly working environments.

“Filipinos and other seafarers would benefit from the immediate ratification and implementation of this convention. This would promote an even playing field where seafarers and their manning states no longer compete to lower standards and wages. The evils of the FOC system would also be addressed effectively as the flag state’s responsibilities are now clearly defined. The enforcement of the rights and standards under this convention will now be the responsibility of the flag state, the port state where the ship is found, the labor-supplying state that mans the seafarers, and the ship-owner and its recruitment and placement agents. This would also complement the existing inspectorate of the labor federation of ITF and the various church-based seafarers’ centers like the Stella Maris of the Apostleship of the Seas and the Seafarers Mission of the Protestant churches,” says de la Cruz.

The FILSEA and the ISAC said that they would push for the MLC ’06 ratification and will pressure the government to act swiftly on the pact.

“However, the good intentions of international instruments, such as the Maritime Labor Convention of 2006, will remain illusory if seafarers themselves do not fight for and claim their rights. As governments continue to neglect their responsibility to uphold the rights and to protect the welfare of workers, seafarers’ organizations and advocates must remain vigilant. Seafarers must persist in organizing, uniting, and launching concerted actions to expose and oppose schemes of exploitation. Only they can turn the tide in their favor,” de la Cruz said.


4 thoughts on “Filipino mariners: sailing on turbulent seas

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