NGO bares dire working conditions endured by Filipino seafarers amid pandemic

NGO bares dire working conditions endured by Filipino seafarers amid pandemic
Taxis are parked dockside near the Diamond Princess cruise ship in quarantine due to fears of the new COVID-19 coronavirus, seen through a fence at the Daikoku Pier Cruise Terminal in Yokohama on February 19, 2020.
AFP / Charly Triballeau

MANILA, Philippines — A non-governmental organization on Thursday warned against the worsening working conditions being endured by Filipino seafarers amid the COVID-19 crisis. 

“Seafarers are the hardest hit [by] this pandemic,” Lala Tolentino, country manager for Mission to Seafarers Philippines, said during an online consultation held by Sen. Risa Hontiveros. 

"Many of them are working overtime, given ‘yan, but more than the overtime, they are working over contract," she said, adding that even when seafarers are granted extensions, they often work beyond 11 months which is the maximum length for a seafarer's contract. 

"So if the contract is nine months, they are working until the 12th month and there are even more working up to the 15th month. This is because crew changes are denied and there are lockdowns in several ports," Tolentino said in a mix of Filipino and Engish. Crew changes entail the replacement of seafarers whose contracts have expired. 

Tolentino added that these seafarers who are forced to stay beyond their contracts are often key workers which is why they cannot be sent home. 

"They are the most distressed as well. They are the most distressed because of the long hours of work, because of the fatigue, and more than that, they don’t have balanced food, they don’t have balanced diet, some don’t even have good drinking water," Tolentino said partially in Filipino. 

Communications with loved ones, which Tolentino said often serves to relieve stress and fatigue for seafarers, is limited as well. "They feel [that they are] in isolation," she said. 

In June, the United Nations called the current situation faced by seafarers across the globe a "growing humanitarian and safety crisis." 

"As a result of COVID-related travel restrictions, hundreds of thousands of the world’s two million seafarers have been stranded at sea for months. Unable to get off ships, the maximum sea time stipulated in international conventions is being ignored, with some seafarers marooned at sea for 15 months," Stéphane Dujarric, spokesman for the Secretary-General, said. 

Of the over 204,000 migrant workers repatriated by the Department of Foreign Affairs as of September, 33.98% or 69,477 are sea-based. Among those repatriated last month were sixteen seafarers who were stranded in China for over six months due to the country's "no disembarkation policy" — a precautionary measure implemented due to the pandemic and the unavailability of commercial flights.

The need to better protect rights, welfare of seafarers 

Hontiveros authored Senate Bill No. 357, or the proposed Magna Carta for Seafarers which she said would better protect the rights and welfare of seafarers before, during, and after deployment. She held an online conference on Thursday with several stakeholders to hear their concerns and suggestions regarding the bill. 

Among the provisions in the bill is that the maximum hours of work rendered by seafarers within a day should not exceed 14 hours. 

"It doesn't happen that they stop working in the 12th hour or in the 14th hour, especially when they are at the port. Even 24 hours sometimes they really don't have sleep," Tolentino said in Filipino. 

Along with suggesting that Hontiveros' measure ensure that restrictions on maximum work hours are implemented, Tolentino asked that provisions requiring sufficient overtime pay and standardized wages be included in the bill as well. 

Tolentino also lobbied that better medical attention — both to mental and physical wellness — be ensured for seafarers. 

"We all know that before embarkation they undergo medical procedures to ensure that they are safe at work. Just the same, during the onboard are they being monitored? Maybe some yes, but most of the time not, unless there is an accident," she said partially in Filipino. 

"We hope that both their physical and mental [health] will be checked given the situation and experiences that they had onboard. Hindi madali (not easy)," Tolentino said. 

She stressed that neglectful policies regarding the health of seafarers often endanger their job security as well. 

"Of course we don't want to hire someone who's not healthy or someone who might have accident onboard but how can we ensure that the seafarer can have some sort of job security?" Tolentino pushed. 

"Because there are [seafarers] who work over a decade in one company and because of one accident will not be hired again even if they are physically fit," she explained in English and Filipino. 

She added that in other instances, seafarers can be healthy when they go home but develop illnesses weeks after —  but because their contracts have expired, they do not receive the necessary care. — Bella Perez-Rubio

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