Filipino Seafarers: Sailing for a Living

By Bob R. Acebedo


With their sheer number representing a huge percentage of the burgeoning 3.15 million Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs), they are hailed as the country’s sailing heroes toiling in the world’s oceans—and “sweatships”—and, indispensably too, helping keep afloat the precariously shaky Philippine economy.

But, more observable than not, it seems that their undaunted spirit and determination is treading through global waters is borne not out of passion for their chosen profession—and perhaps less from their mind is the heroic call of saving the country’s ailing economy—but out of sheer compulsion of earning a living and providing a bright future for their families. Invariably it seems, what inevitably drove these conspicuous hordes of Filipino seafarers to sail overseas, more than the lure of foreign travel, is the patent lack—and continuously waning availability—of opportunities back home.

Mike Solis, 47, would have never thought of returning again to his job as a seaman when he decided to come home for good in 1995 after 14 years of working in foreign ships. After completing his maritime education and training from PMI Colleges in Bohol (Central Visayas) in 1981, he immediately embarked on sailing overseas, and shortly some four years later, he got married to Ermaine, a professional Dentist who hails from Sariaya, Quezon.

Through his 14 years stint as a seaman, Mike has been regularly away from his family—his wife and two sons—for consecutively 9 months every year. Coming home in 1995, Mike then thought of bidding goodbye to the seas and opted rather to earn a living locally and be with his family.

But for almost 8 years since Mike decided to settle back home, he had hardly found a sustainable source of income to support his family—thanks though to his wife’s earning as a Dentist in a government hospital in Quezon City which practically saved the family’s needs. “Mahirap. Akala ko ay sapat na yung konting naipon ko ng ilang taon kong pagiging marino. Pero, wala rin. Mahirap talaga and buhay dito sa atin (It’s difficult enough. I thought the savings I had from those years of being a seaman was enough. But it was nothing. Life is really difficult here at home),” Mike rues.


Fast Facts on Filipino Seafarers

Top 5 types of vessels Filipinos boarded in 2005

Top 5 Flag Registries* of vessels Filipinos boarded in 2005:

So, sometime in 2003, with his two sons then about to enter College, Mike made another tough decision revoking the one he earlier made: he has to return back to his overseas seafaring work.

Now, Mike, whose two sons are already both studying in a College Seminary in Makati City, has no plans yet of ending his seafaring career—not perhaps until his two sons would have successfully finished their priestly formation in the Seminary. Working currently as the Petty Officer in a foreign vessel, his over $1,000.00 monthly salary is well enough to assure him, at least, that his two sons would be able to finish their studies.

There is no coming home for good yet likewise for Artemio (not his real name), 38, a seaman for already 12 years now. A native Cebuano, married and with two teen kids, Artemio works as the ship’s First Wheeler, a “ratings” position (non-licensure or non-officership position) belonging to the lower crew ranks.

When asked what prompted him to pursue the seaman’s career, Artemio expressed his dismay about the country’s sagging economic condition. “Sa nakikita ko sa bayan natin, mahirap maghanapbuhay dito. Ang kumikita dito sa atin ay yun lang may matataas ang pinag-aralan, hindi katulad ko. Kaya kung hindi ako maglalayag sa labas ay talagang hindi ko kikitain ang katulad sa kinikita ko ngayon (As I see it here in our country, it’s hard enough to earn a living. Those who are actually earning here are only those who are highly educated, not like me. So if I won’t go abroad, I would certainly not earn the same amount I am earning now),” Artemio said.

Certainly, under local income standards, Artemio ’s modest $900.00 monthly pay is quite good enough, he claims, to support the schooling of his two children (the elder one already in 3rd year high school, and the younger in Grade six).

But, would Artemio aspire for one of his kids to follow his career path in traversing the world’s seas? “Hindi. Ayaw ko (No. I don’t want)”, Artemio quickly retorted. “Kasi, mahirap talaga ang buhay marino. Mahirap sa kalooban na mahal mo ang pamilya mo pero wala ka naman palagi (Because, a seaman’s life is really hard. It’s really a difficult feeling that you love your family and yet you are not always around),” Artemio explains.

Artemio ’s expression of opposition in letting his son follow his footstep is shared by other seaman-fathers or parents as well. Arsenio , 43, a 3rd Engineer seaman from Bohol and who has been in maritime service for already 20 years, readily objects to sending his 18-year-old only child to a maritime school. “Ayaw ko. Mahirap ang buhay sa barko. Maraming amo ang kailangan mong sundin (I don’t want. Life is hard working on board a ship. There are a lot of superiors whom you have to obey),” Arsenio said referring to the ship’s crewing hierarchy. With his basic monthly pay of $1,700.00, Arsenio has instead sent his to study currently in a medical school in Makati.

So also for Mike Solis—he is unhesitatingly adamant in discouraging any of his sons to become a seaman. “Ayaw ko dahil ayaw kong maranasan nila ang naranasan ko. Sinasabi ko palagi sa mga anak ko, tingnan niyo, kayo at ang nanay niyo ay lagi kong naiiwan…gusto niyo ba itong mangyari sa mga magiging pamilya niyo? (I don’t want because I don’t like to let them pass through the same experience I had. I have always told my sons, look, I have always been away from you and your mom…do you want the same thing to happen to your future families?),” Mike explained.

Dominance by the Number

CF SharpLured by higher wages and free foreign travel, and precipitated by the waning availability of local opportunities due to the country’s dismal economic condition, Filipino seafarers have all the more trekked on a sailing exodus for a living throughout every corner of the world’s seas.

According to Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA) statistics, the country still lords it over in the number of seafarers deployed globally—constituting 25 percent of all seafarers worldwide—thus earning the reputation as number one labor exporter of seafarers worldwide.

As of last year alone, POEA reports revealed that seafarer deployment totaled to 247,751—some 8.18 percent increase from 2004’s 229,002 total seafarer deployment.

This surging trend of seafarer deployment remains unabated up to the present. Recent reports from the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) indicated that the total global deployment of Filipino seafarers increased robustly by another 10.6 percent or 16,646 between January 1 and August 22 this year to 173,166, from 156,520 in the same period in 2005.

Acting Labor Secretary Danilo P. Cruz said that as the trend continues, “we may well exceed the 250,000 level in total global deployment of our seafarers, and even approach the 300,000 mark in the entire 2006.”

Industry observers believe that the Filipino seafarers’ dominance in the global maritime market may be attributed to the classic idea, internationally peddled some years ago, that “the Filipino sailors’ mastery of the English language, their excellent training, their reputation as quiet, obedient workers and their willingness to accept meager salaries make them very popular with ship owners and principals”. Furthermore, the Filipinos’ dominance as seafarers has likewise been attributed to “their industriousness, rapport with other seafarers of diverse cultures and languages, and reliability under the pressures of prolonged sea travel”.

The Gains vs. the Pains

EOMCFor the government and the country as well, it cannot be without reason in touting Filipino seafarers as “modern day heroes”. After all, despite the not un-common stories of discrimination, aggression, perversion and injustices they routinely face at work and all other risks involved in the seafaring profession, the significant contribution of Filipino seafarers in alleviating the country’s ailing economy cannot be ignored. As of last year (2005), industry sources revealed that dollar remittances of Filipino seamen amounted to US$ 1.7 billion, an undeniably impressive amount to help keep the sagging Philippine economy afloat.

But, more particularly, Filipino seafarers are shining heroes to their own families. More than the lure of free foreign travel, Filipino seafarers toil in the world’s oceans, undaunted by the toppling waves and strong winds in high and distant seas, just to obtain the coveted “gains” of the seafaring career: higher wages for their work which allow them to send their children through higher education and provide a more promising future, some savings for a new house and sustainable business, and the acquisition of skills and experiences which they might apply gainfully on their return.

These gains, however, are surpassed by the “pains” of family separation, threat to family unity, and psychological-emotional starvation suffered by all family members that, more often than not, spawn some crushing effects especially for the children.

Notwithstanding too, more than the personal pains are the seemingly never-ending accounts of work-related problems and concerns of seafarers which mostly have remained unaddressed like, namely: exploitation of apprentices, illegal recruitment, cultural and language barriers, discrimination, placement of seafarers aboard substandard vessels, illegal transfers, being stranded without any support, “double bookkeeping” (or double contracts) so the operator can avoid paying seafarers according to the union pay scale, non-payment of compensation, refusal of employers to shoulder repatriation expenses, illegal discharge or dismissal, abandonment by the shipowner, vessel sailing despite unseaworthiness, non-operational or unjust grievance machienery on board, captain’s abuse of discretion, breach of contract to sail in war-risk area, etc. etc.—not to mention too the job-related injuries, death and accidents; natural calamities at sea; incidents of hijacking, robbery, or kidnapping; and the possibility of contracting an HIV virus and other sexually transmitted diseases.

These seemingly dumbing din of “pains” that precariously accompany the seafaring profession are understandably reasons enough for some, if most, seafarer-fathers and parents—like Mike and Ermaine Solis, Artemio , and Arsenio —to discourage their sons to pursue the seafaring career.

In sum, amid the overwhelming host of pains that inescapably accrue the seafaring profession, reluctant perhaps are most of the Filipino seafarers in leaving their families behind and sail on global waters for a living.

But, likely enough, so long as domestic opportunities for a decent living remain dim and the country’s economic muck continues, more Filipino seafarers are yet left with no choice but to tread and toil in the world’s oceans and seas—precariously living up to their reputation as sailing heroes of the land and to their families.

Mike solis can only express his exasperation, “Kung may kikitain lang akong mas maganda ditto sa atin, ayaw ko na talaga ang pagiging marino (If only I can earn more here, really I do not like anymore being a seaman).”