In 2019 Filipino seafarers sent home a whopping $6,539,246,000. The amount represents 80% of their basic salaries, which is required by law to be remitted as family allotments and paid in Philippine currency. Alas, not all of the money went to the families. Unscrupulous manning agents got to keep part of it by using an exchange rate that is usually a peso lower than the official rate of the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas (Central Bank of the Philippines).
In a June 2018 post, I described how Filipino seafarers were being shortchanged in the conversion of their dollar remittances to pesos. Manning agents shave off at least one peso from the foreign exchange rate. Naturally, the families of seafarers get less than what they should. It is a form of thievery that has gone on for decades. And it will go on ad infinitum for a very simple reason: the rules make the scheme possible.
All seafarers live under a curse. It is called revalidation. “Why the hell do I need to have my certificate revalidated?” Every seafarer must have asked the question at one time or another. It’s a fair question to ask. Neither knowledge nor experience has an expiry date. And yet, in many cases seafarers must show evidence every five years that they have maintained the standards of competence under the International Convention on Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping for Seafarers (STCW).
The COVID-19 pandemic has stirred chaos in the shipping world the likes of which we’ve never seen before. Thousands of seafarers stranded at sea; cruise ships with infected passengers shooed away from ports; and everywhere, frantic calls to do something about the situation. It all brings to mind a line from William Butler Yeats’ poem ‘The Second Coming’: “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.”
In an exploitative and unjust world, the existence of seafarer unions is not only desireable but imperative. Unions are the gadfly of shipping. They keep abusive shipowners in line. They may not eliminate the abuses, but they help reduce their scale and frequency. However, like all institutions, seafarer unions are prone to certain shortcomings and defects. Listed below are five examples.
The shipping industry has a strong fetish for buzzwords. The latest to ring loud and clear is “crew change” — a slogan spawned by the global COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent stranding at sea of thousands of seafarers. Interestingly, nowhere in ILO Maritime Labour Convention, 2006, as amended can one find the phrase “crew change”. Instead, MLC 2006 talks of repatriation (the word is mentioned 37 times in the main body).
Seafarers don’t expect to be treated like royalty. They just want to carry on without the encumbrances that make working at sea less than satisfying and with the respect from other people that they deserve. The following is a sequel to my earlier post, ’35 things that make like more difficult for seafarers’.
I recently learned a Japanese exercise from a programme shown on NHK World-Japan. It is called radio callisthenics or rajio taiso (literally, “radio gymnastics”) — so named because it was originally broadcast to music on public radio. I think it is ideal for seafarers and other maritime folks who don’t have all the time in the world to exercise.
Life is hard enough for seafarers without other people making it harder. Alas, there is no shortage of individuals, often including one’s kith and kin, who would take advantage of this group of workers. Ironically, some institutions and regulations are the very source of the exploitation and the suffering. The following is a list of things many seafarers have to put up with as they struggle to build a better future for themselves and their families.
There is an upside to the COVID-19 pandemic. Whilst strewing death and misery along its path, the coronavirus has cast light on the real character of individuals and nations, of entire institutions and industries. Here are some facts about the shipping world that it has brought into sharper focus:
In his splendid 1922 book, All About Coffee. William H. Ukers wrote: “(Coffee) acts upon the nervous system as a powerful cerebro-spinal stimulant, increasing mental activity and quickening the power of perception, thus making the thoughts more precise and clear…” Given how seafarers’ rights continue to be routinely violated, the campaign to promote these rights needs a similar stimulant — a strong push, a fillip. The following are six ways that should help achieve this goal.
The thought of seafarers stranded by the thousands because of the COVID-19 pandemic makes me hark back to a poem in Spanish entitled ‘Perdón si por mis ojos’. It was written by Chilean poet Pablo Neruda (1904 – 1973), winner of the 1972 Nobel Prize for Literature. I am delighted to share this powerful poem together with my English translation. Neruda describes the inner life of the seafarer against a backdrop of water, rock and seaweed.