Moored in our hearts
TOWARDS JUSTICE - Emmeline Aglipay-Villar (The Philippine Star) - June 30, 2020 - 12:00am

Some say that distance makes the heart grow fonder – but, in general, it is the opposite that is true. Distance and separation weaken our ability to care for and empathize with others, just as our closeness makes it easier to sympathize with a friend or a neighbor rather than a stranger. Especially during an emergency such as a pandemic, when our concerns narrow, what is out of sight may as well be out of mind.

And there are few groups whose plight at present is as urgent, yet as unseen, as that of our seafarers.

Being a seafarer is not an easy vocation, and most of the men and women who enter into it do so with the knowledge of the hardships that life brings. Whether as a response to a calling, or a means to make a living for their families, they choose a life on the sea with full knowledge of its tempestuous nature. Seafarers are tough – and we’re lucky that they are, for a world without seafarers would be unrecognizable.

For example: The shipping industry is responsible for the transport of more than 80 percent of traded goods, which include many essential supplies such as food, fuel, and medical supplies.  Filipinos have been quick to acknowledge the heroism of couriers and delivery riders during the quarantine, but few remember that the business of transporting the goods lies in the hands of seafarers before these even reach our shores. Even those who are not involved in shipping, such as those in the cruise ship industry, contribute greatly via their remittances alongside other OFWs. And now, many of those jobs are in peril.

Seafarers are used to their role in our day-to-day lives going underappreciated, but they have always needed and deserved public support. This need has evolved into an urgent humanitarian crisis in the wake of COVID-19. While many seafarers have done their part to ensure the continued flow of essential goods, this has left them stranded outside their homelands as nations around the world locked down. Many nations under quarantine refused to allow seafarers to disembark, and according to reports from the International Labor Organization, some were reportedly denied the right to come ashore for medical treatment. Even for those whose employment contracts had already expired, after some had been forced by circumstance to serve for a year or longer (beyond the maximum period allowed by the Maritime Labour Convention after which the right to repatriation arises) – these seafarers were required to remain aboard their vessels, many times confined to cramped quarters under even stricter quarantine than that experienced on land.

While the Philippines has generously allowed cruise ships to dock at Manila Bay when these ships were denied succor by other nations, there is still much work to be done to get seafarers all the way home. And getting them home will in turn allow their replacements a chance to begin their tenure of gainful employment in order to provide for their families.

Seafarers, both Filipino and foreign, need our help. But the public response to their plight has been muted. When we see medical frontliners subjected to discrimination or injustice, there is an almost instant swell of indignant anger – and rightly so. But seafarers, particularly in the shipping industry, have played and continue to play a key role in the fight against COVID-19, and while they would deserve our help regardless, addressing this crew change crisis is also a matter of public health. Some seafarers have been serving for more than 15 months according to some reports. Exhausted and demoralized seafarers may become a danger to themselves, to others, and to their cargo – and if seafarers fear for their health and well being while onboard they may begin to refuse to serve aboard ships. If this happens then a majority of international trade may grind to a halt, with catastrophic effects.

Trapped on their ships, it’s more difficult for seafarers to make their plight known – they cannot demonstrate on the streets, or personally petition government offices. It is up to others to bring their concerns to the fore, and in the recent weeks – as the scale of the difficulties they face has become more apparent – there has been an increasing push for governments around the world to declare seafarers to be “key workers” during the pandemic. This call has received the support of no less than the United Nations Secretary-General, António Guterres, who has stated that: “The world could not function without the efforts of seafarers, yet their contributions go largely unheralded… They deserve far greater support at any time, but especially now.” Even Pope Francis has made it a point to raise the sacrifices seafarers have been forced to make.

To acknowledge the status of seafarers as “key workers” is a way to encourage governments to allow and expedite the safe change of crew and repatriation of stranded seafarers. Entities such as the International Maritime Organization have endorsed protocols that would allow for safe crew changes even during the pandemic, ensuring rest for the weary and jobs for the ready. But it is the national governments that must move to support and implement these protocols – to ensure that the seafarers are not, literally, left adrift.

I have always advocated for stronger support for our seafarers and it was during my first term in Congress, a decade ago, when I filed the bill to enact the Magna Carta for Seafarers. Yet for all that we are – an archipelago, a maritime nation, home to over 500,000 of them, their needs have long been pushed to the fringes of discussion. One only need look at the still unpassed Magna Carta for Seafarers to see that.

The Magna Carta for Seafarers is meant to protect against exploitation by giving specific standards for employers to meet. These include specifying maximum total work hours, and a minimum acceptable quality for a seafarer’s work environment. This codification of the rights of seafarers should be a priority moving forward.

But right now, in the midst of this worldwide crisis, we need seafarers more than ever. And more than ever, they need us. There were still between 40,000 to 50,000 seafarers stuck on cargo ships at the start of June, and more on other vessels. Even as their work has taken them out of sight, their needs must never be away from our hearts and minds.

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