A Seafarer’s Struggles, Old and New



Huge houses, cars – a lot of them, and many fancy things can be seen around a place where a seafarer resides, or at least that’s what’s imagined of someone who works in a ship. This may be a true story to many of our seamen and seawomen. But things have not always been like that, especially during the pandemic, where a lot of people lost their livelihoods, and a lot of transactions got halted, including many businesses that rely on shipping and transportation.

Medical evaluation requirements have been rampant, but it is not really just the additional requirements that make it extra challenging especially for seafarers, but the fact that there are now very limited healthcare resources and manpower that makes additional medical requirements harder and longer to accomplish or obtain. This hindered many seafarers from going to their place of work or their actual countries of destination. A first-hand account about seafarers’ problems published in the website of World Maritime University, details how it reached a point where they do not have enough supply of medicines and that procuring those was an impossible task given the widespread lockdowns in many places.

Heinrich Boll Stiftung Southeast Asia published an article with a statement from a Filipino cruise ship seafarer, Emerson, 35 years old, saying, “Cruise line operations in the entire world halted, we lost work.” “We have no idea when the cruise industry rebounds.” Emerson added.

Aside from additional medical assessments, seafarers also need to do either a self-quarantine or an institution-managed one, and in many cases, one will have to do it before leaving the country and again upon reaching another country. This may not only be costly for many but it is also a huge time-killer, causing them not to earn in weeks or months, which will delay their remittance to their families back in the Philippines. Of course when one turns out to be positive of Covid-19, the story is totally different and worse. Consequently, this affects not only their livelihood but also many other aspects of their lives including the schooling of their children, their businesses, their investments, and their eligibility for loans, insurance coverage and other financial services. The financial capacity of seafarers have been affected in many ways by this pandemic, aside from its direct community impacts such as inflation.

Families of seafarers may also have a distinct pattern of spending, one which is not similar to other families earning more or less. Cost of living may be higher, and their children may actually be expecting so much more from their parents. This makes it extraordinarily difficult for the working parents, especially if their kids have been used to such a living standard. Savings, if there’s any, will become an essential part of the consumption budget and will eventually be exhausted without new and additional cash inflow.

But even before the pandemic, the situation has become more and more challenging for many seafarers, especially Filipinos. An article published by The Manila Times says that in 2017, a total of 64,748 Filipino seamen lost their jobs. The Philippine Overseas Employment Agency (POEA) records showed that a total of 378,072 Filipino sea-based workers were deployed in 2017 compared with 442,820 in 2016. And this is because Pinoys are becoming more expensive versus other nationalities. In the same article, it was highlighted that Filipino ratings, or skilled seafarers, are estimated to cost $1,000 each per month, compared with $600 to $800 per month in Indonesia. Another Asian country, India, has its employment of seafarers grow by 35 percent in the first months of 2019, which means the Philippines started losing its share of the pie even before the pandemic began.

The situation is absolutely worse for those who lost their jobs before the pandemi. Although many seafarers usually expect to be able to get back on their feet eventually, even after losing an employment from one company since there are many other shipping manpower agencies which could potentially help them, the worst struck them when international lockdowns began. Aside from not being able to “sail”, it has also become more difficult to get employment locally. Coupled with inflation, one can only expect a difficult situation for many seafarers trapped in unemployment and the lockdowns. We have seen some of those previously in the tourism and hospitality industries work temporarily in logistics and local transportation for income and to be able to support their families while their original work is paused.

In many articles, it wasn’t even a question of “when” but one of “if” when it comes to different industries in shipping coming back to the international scene, especially in the case of cruise lines.

Nevertheless, hope is in sight. Economists argue that we have already seen and experienced the worst this pandemic can bring. And that vaccines and new healthcare measures to tackle medical challenges, including any new ones should others arise, are in place to unpause the Earth and move forward. Developments help ease the effects of lockdowns and the former perceptions of some industries shrinking permanently. With advanced and innovative mechanisms, it may be possible for many companies to get back on their feet, if not even expand, amidst the presence of a pandemic. And this hope extends to the shipping industry, bringing smiles to Filipino seafarers, dubbed as the happiest crew on the planet!

Pinoys’ resilience shall eventually surface, even in the seafaring industry. The same attribute can make it easy for many shipping companies to increase the demand for Filipino seafarer services once again and thrive. But, of course, resilience isn’t enough.

Filipinos need to save for the rainy days, as they always say it – and this has never been more applicable than ever. Especially for seafarers who may have had challenges saving money in the past. The situation we are in should have sent that strong message of the need to be more financially literate and prepared. Investing is another good option and it can be in the form of assets or businesses. One can consult a financial adviser to explore these things even further.

Government support is another key factor. And more than rations and monetary support, policies, laws, and support mechanisms need to be improved further. This may include social security systems for overseas Filipino workers, established helplines for them including the seafarers, and comprehensive campaigns on elevating financial literacy. Those will certainly go a long way.

Nothing lasts forever, as they say. And that’s the same for the fortune brought about by seafarers to our country. Changes happen every second and the only way to prepare is keep innovation going, personally and professionally, whichever industry one may be in.

For comments about this write up, shoot an email to aoguanzon@gdfi.com.ph.

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