THIS month alone, one Filipino shipping crewmember has been taken hostage every six hours somewhere in the world, according to an official running count by the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) that is now being updated by the day, if not by the hour.
The unpleasant statistics — the worst ever recorded in a month — underscore not just the surge in piracy off the largely lawless East African coast. The numbers also underpin how feeble Philippine government measures are in keeping Filipino seafarers from harm’s way.
Over the last two years, pirates have seized 39 shipping vessels, including eight in the last two months alone. Aboard smaller vessels but now better armed, they are now staging daytime assaults on bigger ships, where they used to attack only in the dead of night before.
The Philippines is among the world’s top sources of shipping crews, accounting for about a fifth of the 1.2 million international ship workers. In 2007, a total of 266,553 Filipinos left home to work in international passenger ships and cargo vessels under employment contracts lasting about a year.
The shipping industry has long been considered one of the most dangerous in the world. Recently, however, piracy has risen up in the list of menaces faced by seamen.
Indeed, the number of Filipino seafarers being seized by sea pirates who hijack ships and vessels for ransom in different parts of the world has climbed to 70 in just three weeks up to November 18, bringing the cumulative total for the year 2008 to 213.
134 Pinoys in custody
Of the Filipinos taken hostage, 134 are still being held by pirates, the highest number ever according to the DFA. The rest, or 79 seafarers, had been freed, yet typically only after the payment of ransom by their shipping companies.
The International Maritime Bureau (IMB), the private sea-piracy watchdog, reveals that the number of reported hijackings on the high seas has spiked to 83 cases in the third quarter this year compared to the same period in 2007. There were 53 cases recorded in the first quarter of 2008, and 63 in the second quarter.
The IMB also estimates that a total of 581 shipping crewmembers were held hostage all over the world in the first nine months of the year.
As a consequence, the number of Filipino seamen taken captive by armed men in Africa rose multiple-fold — from less than two per month on average from January to June, to almost 40 a month from July to September.
The sharp rise apparently startled Manila to start considering measures to address the problem. In August, Foreign Affairs Secretary Alberto Romulo proposed to disallow the deployment of Filipino seamen in ships and vessels passing through waters where sea piracy is rife.
The Philippines, after all, routinely imposes both temporary and long-term bans on sending Filipino workers to war-torn countries such as Iraq, Afghanistan, and Lebanon.
Romulo’s proposal was forwarded to the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA), the government agency that regulates the lucrative recruitment industry. But the agency’s board of trustees rejected the proposal, following opposition from ship operators and manning companies that argued that a ban could kill a significant segment of the recruitment industry.
Some leaders of seafarers’ unions similarly nixed the proposal, saying it would deprive Filipino seamen of employment opportunities.
POEA tries a new tack
In 2003, a PCIJ investigative report examined how the government and manning companies were trying to persuade Filipino seafarers to give up some of their employment benefits in order to remain “competitive.”
This time around, the POEA adopted measures that in its view would help protect the rights and welfare of Filipino sailors in ships sailing through dangerous waters.
Source: DFA, news clippings
|November 18||MV Delight||7|
|November 17||MV Sirius Star||19|
|November 16||MV Chemstar Venus||18|
|November 14||Tianyu No. 8||3|
|November 10||MT Stolt Strength||23|
|October 15||MT African Sanderling||21|
|September 30||MT Aveiro||5|
|September 21||MV Capt Tefanos||17|
|September 17||MV Centauri||26|
|September 15||MT Stolt Valor||2|
|August 29||MT Bunga Melati 5||5|
|August 21||MT Irene||15|
|August 21||MV Iran Deyanat||2|
|August 21||BBC Trinidad||9|
|August 19||MT Bunga Melati Dua||10|
|July 20||MV Stella Maris||20|
|May 25||MV Amiya Scan||5|
|April 4||Le Ponant||6|
|October 26||MV Golden Nori
MV Ching Fong Whe
|March 29||MT Lin 1 Akron||20|
Last October 7, the POEA’s board of trustees issued Resolution No. 4 that doubled the daily compensation and death and illness benefits of Filipino crewmembers whenever their ships pass through the so-called “high-risk” area in the Gulf of Aden. The resolution was to take effect immediately.
The POEA also revised the standard employment contract for Filipino seafarers and gave them the option to get off any ship that plans to sail into waters beset by piracy and hijackings.
If one goes by the numbers so far since, however, the new POEA policies are hardly keeping Filipino seafarers from falling into the hands of African pirates.
This month, or just weeks after the new policies were put in place, the average number of Filipino seamen being seized by pirates each month has almost doubled to 70 — and counting — from the previous figure posted between July and September 2008.
The PCIJ tried to contact the POEA by fax and by phone call, but as of press time, there was still no response from the agency.
In the meantime, Migrante International, the leftist support group for overseas Filipino workers, says it is not surprised that the policy has been rendered effete.
John Leonard Monterona, the Saudi Arabia-based Middle East coordinator for Migrante, says the POEA’s decision to double the pay and benefits of seafarers at risk yielded an unwanted result: encourage more Filipino seamen to sail on in waters prone to pirate attacks.
“The double hazard pay scheme is simply saying ‘Welcome aboard, Filipino seafarers; let all of you be kidnapped but what we need are your precious remittances,’” Monterona laments in an emailed statement.
Seafarers, who are better paid than other overseas Filipino workers, send higher than average remittances. In 2007, seafarers sent home $2.2 billion, about 15 percent of the $14.5-billion total remittances from Filipino workers overseas. That is comparatively huge since they make up only three percent of the 8.7 million Filipinos working and living abroad.
Too, their remittances continue to be sent home to the Philippines even when the seamen are being held captive. Under the POEA’s standard employment contracts for Filipino seamen, ship operators and manning companies automatically send to the seaman’s families a big portion of his monthly salary.
The doubling of hazard pay and benefits has elicited mixed reactions from Filipino seamen.
Kobe Romulo, for one, says he will volunteer for duty in a ship sailing through dangerous waters and risk being hostaged by pirates in return for higher pay and benefits.
“I’ll go ahead despite the risks,” says the 28-year-old deck hand from Davao who is training to be a third officer. “It’s difficult to find good paying jobs these days.”
Although he is single, Romulo says he is supporting two siblings through school. He also says he has had a close encounter with Somali pirates when a chemical tanker where he worked as an able-bodied seaman was given a chase by a pirate ship somewhere in the Gulf of Aden in August this year. But he reasons, “These things really depend on chance and fortune. There’s nothing you can really do about them.”
Yet there are also those like Carlos Campos, 51, a fitter, who says not even the doubling or tripling of pay or benefits will make him work in a ship passing through the pirate-infested waters of the Gulf of Aden.
“I’m retiring in the next few years. I can’t risk anything happening to me,” says Campos, who has put three children through college, built a house for his family, his parents, and his wife’s parents after working for three decades welding and repairing ship parts at sea.
Besides, he adds, he can now choose which ship company to work for because a surge in hiring for Filipino crewmembers in the last few years meant there’s more demand than can be met by the supply of qualified seamen.
“I recently signed up for a cargo vessel that won’t be passing through Somalian waters,” Campos says, adding that average seaman’s wages have also gone up in recent years because of the rise in demand.
Neither practical nor desirable
But he admits he is in the minority when it comes to seafarers who are steering clear of ships headed for dangerous waters. Most Filipino seamen, says Campos, would be attracted by the doubling of pay and benefits, and volunteer for duty in a ship sailing through the Gulf of Aden.
Still, both Campos and Romulo agree that a policy banning deployment of Filipino seamen in ships passing through the Gulf of Aden is neither practical nor desirable. “It will just encourage Filipino seamen to seek work abroad without passing through POEA,” says Campos.
They are also pinning their hopes for improved security — not from the Philippine government but from a US-led coalition of 10 countries, including Russia, that is working to secure sea lanes beset by pirates off the Eastern African coast.
“The coalition should deploy more naval patrols to ward off the pirate ships, which usually pretend to be fishing boats, and secure the international ships and vessels passing through the Gulf of Aden,” says Campos. He adds that intensified naval patrols by Singapore, Malaysia, and Indonesia also helped cut piracy in the Malacca Straits, which was a piracy hot spot until a few years ago.