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writing for godot

Filipino Seafarers: In Hell and High Waters

Written by Noel Sales Barcelona   
Wednesday, 28 September 2011 03:12
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.

Piracy and other dangers at sea

The Trade Union Congress of the Philippines had 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 in Quezon 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 the Philippines had 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 of Seychelles, 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 International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF), the largest alliance of unions in the transport sector, had sounded the alarm about the use of hostages as “anti-piracy attack shields”. From 2007 to 2011, the fatalities among hostages have reached to 62, and increasing, notes the ITF.

Flag of Convenience: making fleets floating coffins

On the other hand, 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.”

The FOC had been used by the ship-owners to enable them to register their fleets at the very low cost, to operate tax-free and to employ cheap labor to man their usually substandard ships.

Based on the ITF list, 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.

Frozen salaries, declining wages

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

Is MLC '06 ratification possible?

Nevertheless, while there is an international convention that could be the key to unlock the possibility of least hazardous and more humane seafaring industry, some doubt that the Philippine Government would ratify it soon, even though there are reports that the Department of Labor and Employment had been considering the ratification.

“We have been campaigning for the ratification of the MLC (Maritime Labor Convention of 2006), 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.”

“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,” says de la Cruz.

“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. your social media marketing partner
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