Health problems, labor rights abuses, and attacks of pirates continue to endanger the lives of seafarers.
By INA ALLECO R. SILVERIO
MANILA — Different seafarer groups continue to call on the Aquino government to give priority to the ratification of the International Labor Organization’s (ILO) Maritime Labor Convention (MLC) of 2006 saying that it will help guarantee the safety of more than 250,000 Filipino seafarers worldwide. Thirty countries should first ratify the convention before it can take effect.
Last September, members of various maritime organizations were joined by their families in celebrating the 16th International Seafarers’ Week and the World Maritime Day. They said the Aquino government should sign the convention and address the issue of worsening maritime accidents including hijacking incidents that have claimed the lives of many Filipino seafarers.
With the recent ratification by Antigua and Barbuda last August 11, 2011 of the MLC 2006, 18 ILO member states have already ratified the convention, which sets out minimum standards and fair working conditions for seafarers worldwide. If the needed 12 more ratifications will be obtained before the end of 2011, the MLC 2006 will enter into force in 2012.
The 18 countries that have already ratified the convention are Liberia, Marshall Islands, Bahamas, Panama, Norway, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Spain, Croatia, Bulgaria, Canada, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Switzerland, Gabon, Benin, Singapore, Denmark, Latvia, Antigua and Barbuda.
The MLC contains a comprehensive set of global standards, based on those that are already found in 68 maritime labor instruments. It seeks to modernize global standards and enforce a set of minimum requirements to address conditions of employment, accommodation, recreational facilities, food and catering, health protection, medical care, and welfare and social security protection.
The proponents of the convention also want to promote compliance by operators and owners of ships by giving governments sufficient flexibility to implement its requirements in a manner best adapted to their individual laws and practices; and strengthen enforcement mechanisms at all levels, including provisions for complaint procedures available to seafarers, shipowners’ supervision of conditions on their ships, the flag states’ jurisdiction and control over their ships, and port State inspections of foreign ships.
An estimated 90 percent of world trade is carried on ships and seafarers are, in this sense, essential to international trade and the international economic and trade system. The MLC consolidates and updates more than 68 international labour standards related to the maritime sector adopted over the last 80 years.
The ILO said it has been designed to become a global instrument known as the “fourth pillar” of the international regulatory regime for quality shipping, complementing the key Conventions of the ILO.
The decision by the ILO to move forward to create this major new maritime labour convention was the result of a joint resolution in 2001 by the international seafarers’ and ship owners’ organizations, also supported by governments. They pointed out that the shipping industry is “the world’s first genuinely global industry,” which “requires an international regulatory response of an appropriate kind – global standards applicable to the entire industry”.
Health problems of seafarers
Besides problems directly related to employment, the MLC also seeks to addresses issues concerning the health and safety of seafarers.
In the Philippines, the Department of Health said that no less than 50 percent of overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) carrying the dreaded HIV virus are seafarers.
The DOH said the new figures erases the common notion that the HIV virus is being transmitted by OFWs who are working as entertainers or sex workers abroad. Indulging in unprotected sex is often the cause of the HIV transmission among seafarers. HIV and AIDS is now one of the top 10 health issues threatening Filipino seafarers, along with Hepatitis B and heart disease.
According to Eliseo Lucero-Prisno of the Royal Tropical Institute, seafaring is the most risky profession in the world, second to commercial fishing.
Half-a-million Filipino seafarers constantly face an uncertain health scenario, with their lives and limbs always at a risk,” he said.
Lucero-Prisno said the health problems faced by seafarers are aggravated by several factors that undermine their health during the various phases of their work cycles. He said that prior to their work onboard, seamen are not sufficiently prepared to deal with health-threatening realities.
“Their maritime education does not emphasize health issues,”he said. He explained that lack of knowledge/awareness generally makes Filipinos unprepared to meet psychological stresses (loneliness and fatigue) and other health problems such as STDs and HIV and infectious diseases (SARS, influenza, malaria).
“As diseases, accidents and mortality at sea rise in the international shipping sector, Filipino seafarers, the Philippine government and other maritime players such as manning agencies, ships owners and unions, remain in quandary about meaningful solutions to health hazards and problems. Of course, the undermining of the health situation of seafarers impacts on international and national economies, not to mention the welfare and survival of households,” he said.
The health professional said that despite various international conventions promulgated by the ILO, the World Health Organization, and the International Maritime Organization, the Philippine government’s response may be considered weak vis-à-vis the health status of seafarers, making them a vulnerable work group.
“The virtual a dearth of information, the absence of significant health research, and the weakness of policy combine to raise the challenge of a long-term welfare response for seafarers, specially when ailments and deaths set in. Other factors that confirm this challenge are the lack of relevant support systems for seafarers’ families, no strong health insurance system, and lack in resources /capacity in negotiating with foreign partners (insurance companies and ship owners),” he said.
In the end, however, the most immediate problems seafarers face are labor rights abuses and attacks of pirates and lawless elements.
Regarding exploitative labor practices Dennis Gorecho of the Apostolate of the Sea (AOS) said these usually happen aboard different ships, especially the flag-of- convenience (FoC) vessels. He said Filipino seafarers are among the many seafarers from various nationalities who are victimized by unfair labor practices or seafaring accidents.
The number of Filipino sailors working in the world’s merchant fleet is expected to hit 400,000 before the end of 2011. This is the target deployment number set by the Philippine Overseas Administration Office (POEA). In 2010, the agency’s deployment data for sea-based sector was 347,000. This had a 5.06 percent growth over 2009 figures, with an increase for land-based of 3.2 percent. These figures show a combined total of 1,470,826 deployment for that same year (2010), as compared to 1,422,586 in 2009, and 1,236,013 in 2008. Seafarer remittance for January to July 2011 has already reached the $11.4 billion or a 6.3 percent increase over the same January to July 2010 figure of $10.679 billion.
As for piracy, Gorecho said the increasing number of piracy incidents highlight the risks faced by seafarers , particularly Filipino seafarers.
“The Philippines, which supplies a third of the world’s seafarers’ population, is among the most adversely affected and seriously alarmed by incidences of piracy in the Somali basin and the Gulf of Aden. The hijacking of dozens of vessels, ranging from massive oil tankers to chartered supply ships carrying United Nations food aid for Somalia, has become a highly lucrative industry with millions of dollars paid in ransom each year,” he said.
The maritime lawyer said seafarers are on the frontline of the piracy problem.
“In recent years, thousands of seafarers have been killed, injured, assaulted, taken hostage or threatened as piracy and armed robbery have increased dramatically.. All seafarers transiting the Gulf of Aden and Northern Indian Ocean, have to live with the risk of attack. When ships are attacked by pirates, crews suffer the stress of being fired upon with guns and rocket-propelled grenades and those captured can be held hostage for months. Following a piracy attack those involved can be seriously affected by post-traumatic stress,” he said.
Gorecho explained that as a policy, the Philippine government does not negotiate with nor pay ransom to kidnappers, but gives ship owners the free hand in negotiating for the release of abducted Filipino sailors.
According to the International Seafarers’ Action Center (ISAC), “There were reports that pirates now slay their hostages as the ship-owners continue to decline giving ransom for the crew,” it said. When they are not killed, the captive seamen suffer intense psychological torture .
Only last week, two Filipino crew members of a Greek-owned cargo ship were released by Somali pirates. They were held captive for 11 months. According to the Department of Foreign Affairs, the cargo vessel MV Blida was released by the pirates on November 3. The ship then journeyed toward Mombasa in Kenya where the crew members underwent medical checkups. When the seafarers will be repatriated has yet to be scheduled.
The Algerian-flagged and Greek-owned vessel was hijacked by Somali pirates approximately 150 nautical miles off the port of Salalah, Oman on January 1 this year. This, however, was far from being the first case of Filipino seafarers being hostaged by pirates: as of last count, there are still 41 Filipino seafarers being held by pirates in Somalia. Somali pirates are holding on to four other vessels with Filipino crewmen. The pirates are demanding that ship owners give in to their ransom demand.
There is no existing central government in Somalia, and its own authorities find it extremely difficult to control the various lawless armed groups engaged in piracy and ransom kidnappings.
Blaming seafarers for maritime accidents
Seafaaers are also forced to contend with the backlash of maritime accidents, particularly those with environmental repercussions.
Last October, Migrante International appealed for sobriety after the disastrous grounding of the ship MV Rena in New Zealand.
MV Rena, a container ship with an all-Filipino crew figured in a tragic grounding in New Zealand Bay of Plenty causing fuel oil from the ship to spill ashore. Some 1,290 birds and four other animals were killed. There was also reported damage against other marine life.
According to Garry Martinez, Migrante International chairperson, some racist elements blamed Filipino crew members of MV Rena. He said they received reports that the crewmen were subjected to racist comments causing fear for their safety. A week after the incident, they took flights to the Philippines.
Martinez cited a statement released by the International Seafarers’ Action Center (ISAC) saying that the MV Rena tragedy was “an accident waiting to happen.”
The ISAC said the MV Rena incident “reveals the half a century old problem of substandard shipping and the use of Flags of Convenience by unscrupulous ship owners to reduce cost and to amass more profits. The MV Rena is flying the Flag of Convenience of Liberia although the real or beneficial owners are Greek. It is an old and substandard vessel that was built in 1990. For the past 36 months, 50 percent of inspection for deficiencies resulted in the detention of the vessel. Last July, 21, 2011 it was inspected and detained in Fremantle , Australia for 17 deficiencies.”
“It is not surprising then, that this vessel would figure, sooner or later, in an accident of this sort. Many incidents involving substandard vessels flying Flags of Convenience tragically led not only to massive oil spills but to the loss of human lives. This is regardless of the color of the skin, or of the racial origins of the officers and men crewing these vessels.”
The migrant leader said the MV Rena tragedy brought international attention on the plight of Filipino seafarers and the need for the Philippine government to uphold and protect their rights and welfare. “Our sea-based OFWs are in dire need of welfare and assistance from the Philippine government as much as the land-based,” he said.
Difficulties in litigating
The ISAC said it has always been busy handling cases of seafarers who had been duped by their employers on various grounds concerning their economic rights and benefits. It lamented that the flawed justice system in the Philippines and the inadequate international laws continue to deter action on the cases they are handling.
Finally, the group said ‘the litigation process is difficult, intricate, and excruciating.” It said that corruption, power plays and the inadequacy of the local and international laws hamper the litigation and execution processes.
For all these problems, however, the maritime sector and Filipino seafarers are hopeful that with the ratification of the MLC, conditions for the industry and for the thousands of seafarers will improve. and international human rights bodies.