Filipino Seamen Take their Chances in the World’s “Sweatships”
by ALECKS P. PABICO
PAUL PASTERA vividly remembers a time not too long ago when he was forced to work on a Greek ship so decrepit he was longing for land almost as soon he stepped on board. Although the 47-year-old South Cotabato native says it has always been his life-long dream to be a seafarer, the time he spent on that ship proved to be an ordeal.
“Bulok ang barko, unseaworthy,” says Pastera. “That’s when I really felt what many say about having one foot in the grave each time you board a ship. It lacked equipment, food, and water. Sometimes, we’d swallow rust. And the trips we took were also quite long.”
On board another Greek vessel, he and his fellow crew members had to seek the help of the London-based International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) because the ship owner had not paid their salaries for months.
Yet for all his bad experiences, Pastera can still consider himself fortunate. For one, he has been able to land job contracts more frequently than many of the country’s estimated 500,000 registered seafarers. For another, his good gigs still outnumber the bad ones.
That, however, may not be true for long. Radio operators like Pastera have become superfluous in the age of modern merchant vessels equipped with the global maritime distress and safety system. That means that Pastera may find employment only in the older, more battered ships.
But even if Pastera had more marketable skills, he may still have trouble finding ideal working conditions onboard, according to the ITF.
This is because, says the Federation, flag of convenience (FOC) vessels, along with those with second registry, now make up two-thirds of the world’s merchant ships. For over half a century, the ITF has established a link between FOC ships and poor safety practices, as well as old and badly maintained vessels.
Since the Philippines accounts for most of the seafarers worldwide, a substantial number of them often wind up onboard FOC ships, or those registered in a country other than the country of ownership where registration fees are cheap, taxes are low (or none at all), and restrictions on the employment of cheap labor are lax.
The ITF counts 20,906 FOC ships, mostly from Panama, where a third of the crew of Panamanian-flagged ships are Filipinos; Liberia (where 12.8 percent of the crew are Filipino); Cyprus (11 percent Filipino); Malta (8.2 percent) and the Bahamas (7.9 percent).
The ITF’s casualty list in 2001 saw the loss of 99 ships topped by the FOC registers of Panama (15), Cyprus (8), St. Vincent (8), Cambodia (7) and Malta. Thirteen FOC registers also accounted for 63 percent of losses in terms of gross tonnage.
The ill-fated Norwegian Cruise Line’s (NCL)
TABLE 2: Maritime disasters in recent years resulting in Filipino seafarers' loss of life and injury
SOURCE: ITF, local and foreign newspaper reports
Preliminary investigation results of the SS Norway tragedy have described it as “an accident with no warning,” assessing no blame on anyone. Ten days before the explosion, the ship also passed a major annual inspection of the U.S. Coast Guard on its machinery, safety and navigational equipment.
Yet the SS Norway has a troubled history. Two years ago, the U.S. Coast Guard barred the ship from leaving Miami due to improper repairs on its defective sprinkler system. Troubles with its boilers began in May 1981, when these failed and the ship drifted for a day. Then in December, a boiler-room fire forced the cancellation of two cruise schedules, while another fire in March 1982 delayed a cruise for a few hours.
The government’s deployment strategy, however, does not consider the flags carried by ships because, says Ramon Tionloc Jr., a center director at the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA), these “have nothing to do with their seaworthiness.”
“You also have to consider that these FOCs are managed by good companies,” he adds.
Nelson Ramirez, president of the United Filipino Seafarers (UFS), also says that seafarers should be grateful that there are flags of convenience. “We won’t be able to board any ship without the FOCs,” he says. “Panamanian and Liberian FOC ships employ most of our seafarers. An FOC ship is not necessarily bad.”
That, however, is only partly correct. Filipinos are also able to board national flag ships via the country’s second register — like the NIS (Norwegian International Ship Register), DIS (Danish International Ship Register) and GIS (German International Ship Register) — which allows seafarers from other nationalities to join their own crew. One of the reasons is that seafaring has lost its attractiveness in the developed economies, which now have to rely on developing countries like the Philippines for their labor supply.
ITF general secretary David Cockroft does admit that there are also bad ships under genuine national flags, which its inspectors are trying to bring into the ITF fold with the help of seafarers themselves. But there is a big difference, he explains, in that a genuine link between the flag and the country indicates that seafarers can expect some protection from the flag state and its courts.
“With an FOC, if the flag state gets tough, the owner can just shift to another flag,” he says, adding that the impulse to violate labor and safety standards is there because there is not much accountability.
But Doris Magsaysay-Ho, CEO of the Magsaysay Maritime Corporation, a pioneer shipping and ship-manning company in the country, says that “safety has become the most important thing in the world today,” and that ship owners are really serious about this shift.
“Who would want anybody to get hurt?” she asks. “Who would have thought that the (SS Norway’s) boiler would blow up? A lot of us tend to have this mindset that because ships here sink, the owners seem to don’t care. But these are really the mom-and-pop operations, those using wooden boats run just by anybody in the family in their tsinelas.”
Since 1998, the International Maritime Organization (IMO) has adopted the International Management Code for the Safe Operation of Ships and for Pollution Prevention, or the ISM Code. To ensure enforcement of the minimum standards of competence for seafarers, the IMO revised and adopted the provisions of the International Convention on Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping for Seafarers (STCW) in 1995.
In addition, several agreements now allow the inspection of foreign ships entering national ports to ensure they meet IMO standards.
But ITF investigations have revealed a more dismal picture, which is corroborated by other studies, including a five-year-long joint research conducted by the University of Wales in Cardiff and the Hong Kong Polytechnic University. The researches reveal that at least 2,200 seafarers die at sea every year, half from maritime disasters and half from accidents and illnesses. Most of the casualties are seafarers from developing countries, while those from the industrialized nations, which have no sailing experience with FOC ships, fared much better.
In its 2001, the International Commission on Shipping (ICONS) also found that substandard shipping continues, and in some cases thrives, in all corners of the world. It noted that much remains to be done to address the “human side of shipping, to prevent loss of life, injury, injustices, and the inhumane treatment of seafarers” as compared to improvements made in construction, equipment and environmental ship standards.
Reports from maritime authorities also show a rise in safety deficiencies among ships inspected in various ports.
According to the ITF, FOC ships are often marked by poor onboard conditions, extended periods of work, low and unpaid wages, and crew abandonment.
In a 1998 survey, the ITF found that only one in four seafarers work the standard eight hours a day. Most have eight- to 12-hour workdays while an undetermined number work longer than 12 hours.
Despite the advent of modern ships, working and living conditions have remained deplorable — “cramped and often damp living spaces, lack of storage facilities, unhygienic toilets, to often stinking cabins and infested storages causing contraction of illnesses,” the ITF observed in its survey.
In January 2001, ITF inspectors discovered that the six-man crew of Filipinos, Chileans and Haitians were enduring “inhuman” conditions on the Panama-flagged cargo ship Ismael Express with no food and unpaid wages for three months. As one of the inspectors reported, the crew “sleep two to a bunk, with little or no bedding; bare wires spliced together to provide lighting and water is leaking into the living space.”
In a routine inspection of ships docked in Manila last year to check for minimum standards compliance, ITF inspector Rodrigo Aguinaldo discovered that nine Filipino crew members of a Cyprus vessel were not being paid their monthly dues. “We were able to claim back wages amounting to $15,000,” he says.
Recently, even cruise ships like the SS Norway have invited scrutiny from the ITF, which has documented growing evidence of low wages, extremely long working hours, abusive management practices suffered by seafarers whether in the hotel/catering or deck/engine departments.
Working under an eight-month contract in one such “sweatship” in 1999, Luisa Bernardino got a basic salary of $500 a month as a cabin stewardess, significantly more than what an office worker in Manila would get. For that amount, however, Bernardino recalls a job that was very stressful. “You really had to be quick on your feet,” she recalls. “You had to race against time, especially when the passengers would disembark and you had to clean the cabins. You had lots of work even if you were already supposed to be off-duty, because the number of crewmembers was not enough.”
At least Bernardino got paid. Between July 1995 and 2000, the ITF recorded 26 cases of crew abandonment involving hundreds of Filipino seafarers onboard FOC ships. Among the reasons why seafarers were abandoned were either because the ship was arrested by creditors or detained due to safety deficiencies, unpaid wages, or the company was dissolved or went bankrupt.
In November 1996, though, the crew of the Panamanian-flagged vessel Alexandra composed of 10 Filipinos and five Romanians were stranded for six months on the Mongla River in Bangladesh after an explosion killed five crew members. They were paid eventually, but the amounts were less than those stipulated in their contracts.
With no explicit stipulation for a minimum wage, the POEA contract abides by what the International Labor Organization (ILO) recommends. But what the POEA uses is still the 2000 rate of $385 a month, which does not reflect the current ILO benchmark rate of $435.
Only 2,942 FOC ships with Filipinos on board are presently being covered by ITF collective agreements whose wage scales and benefits are comparatively higher than what the POEA standard employment contract provides. Well-run FOC ships, says Cockroft, are easy to spot since they will usually have ITF agreements and respect them. (For all its reported mechanical troubles, the SS Norway is covered by an ITF agreement.)
But that means only 64,800 or about a third of Filipino crew and officers are enjoying the degree of protection provided by ITF agreements. On top of this, more than 60 percent of Filipino seafarers do not belong to any union and are therefore covered only by the POEA standard employment contract, not a collective bargaining agreement (CBA), which almost always carries the same provisions of an ITF agreement. Under the CBA or ITF’s “total crew cost” agreement, the salary is based on the benchmark rate of $1,300 a month ($594 basic pay plus guaranteed overtime and paid leaves) for an able-bodied (AB) seaman. ITF’s standard collective agreement even provides a higher basic monthly pay of $1,020 for an AB.
Two of the top manning agencies in terms of crew deployment reflect this state. Magsaysay, which deploys 1,500 seafarers a month, reports only 41 percent of its crew are covered by a CBA. C.F. Sharp Crew Management, on the other hand, has almost 8,000 of its crew on board, with barely a fourth covered by a CBA.
The reason is that the ship owners exercise the prerogative to cover their crew with a CBA or not, and manning agencies cannot just compel them to do so. Besides, argues POEA’s Tionloc, the ITF rate is too high a standard. “If a ship owner will follow that rate, they cannot operate anymore.”
But ITF’s Cockroft counters that this is what ship owners always say. “Filipino seafarers have a good reputation in the shipping community today and this is mainly because they are well qualified, take pride in their work and are prepared to stand up for themselves against unscrupulous owners,” he stresses.
As the ITF sees it, shipping, especially when FOCs are concerned is a global business that requires wages and conditions on board to be global as well. But the likes of Magsaysay-Ho are spooked endlessly by what they say are global realities. The shipping bigwig has a plea to make to the global transport workers union: “Allow Filipinos to be competitive. Help us maintain our jobs. If no one else in the world was our competitor, then we can price ourselves anyway we want. You want to keep on increasing our rates but the trouble is, China is offering cheaper rates.”