About 80,000 Filipino seafarers are stranded in ships worldwide, work contracts expired and unable to get home. Repatriation is overdue. The COVID-19 pandemic has shut down national borders. Flights to and from the Philippines severely are limited. They cannot just disembark at any port, lest they get grounded or face arrest in a strange land.
The seamen’s tenures lapsed in the past four months, according to industry records. International rules are for them to rest after nine months’ sea time. Physical and mental fatigue is setting in. Extended labor could prejudice their and vessels’ safety.
An equal number of replacements for the lapsed seamen can’t get to work either. Flights are rare too to international port cities where they can board ship. Job placements face cancellation due to inability to report on time. The most number of seafarers in the world, Filipinos might lose their decades-long competitive advantage.
“Inter-agency effort is needed,” says Arben Santos, experienced for 50 years in international shipping. “To get our seamen home and to send off fresh ones, our labor, transport and health officials must coordinate actions.” Signed-out seafarers must be identified and located, their flights home assured, and COVID-19 testing and quarantining streamlined. Same with those about to sign in as replacements.
The Maritime Industry Authority (MARINA) can take the lead. Yesterday incidentally was Filipino Seafarers Day, to honor the 200,000 deployed in almost all international commercial vessels. Because higher paid, they account for $8 billion, or 24 percent, of $33.5 billion annual remittances of 10 million overseas Filipino workers.
The International Maritime Organization (IMO) strictly enforces the maximum nine months sea time. Beyond that performance drops and safety issues arise from overwork, global studies show. So the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration forbids longer seafarer contracts. Too, the International Transport Workers Federation (ITF) can intervene. Countries’ maritime safety agencies can restrain vessels for safety breach.
Ship owners must comply lest be penalized, said Santos, CEO of Southwest Maritime Co. But pandemic-induced national lockdowns have made crew change very difficult. Vessels cannot just divert to the Philippines from set routes to discharge workers. That entails additional costs for fuel, berthing and delay.
The few hundred Filipino seafarers whose vessels went out of their way are the lucky ones. At one point in April as many as 21 cruise lines anchored at Manila Bay to disgorge employees. But the vessels suffered downtimes because required to quarantine the Filipinos two more weeks onboard. President Rody Duterte reported Monday that cruise lines alone will be discharging 29,963 Filipino employees in coming months.
The seafarer repatriation crisis is global. The IMO has sounded the alarm. “I implore governments to do more – today. This cannot wait. This is now a real safety issue, endangering the safe operation of ships,” Secretary-General Kitack Lim said last week. “We cannot expect seafarers to stay at sea forever. Governments must allow shipping to continue moving by getting seafarers to their homes, and to their ships to work.”
The ITF also is concerned. In recent weeks Australian and British maritime agencies have been discovering seafarers working 12 months or more. Body-mind stress leads to despondency. Last week a 19-year-old Chinese mess man fatally jumped from his ship anchored in Vancouver. Early this June a 28-year-old Filipina employee ended her own life in her cruise ship in Barbados after several failed attempts to book flights home. There have been more such incidents elsewhere.
Solutions are being forwarded – and blasted. Last Monday the Panama Ship Registry advised that seafarers’ contracts can be prolonged three months due to repatriation vacuum. Many trade unions objected that such loosening by the world’s largest flag registry is perilous. With seamen already extended up to 14 months since COVID-19 lockdowns began in February, some would be overworking 17 months – nearly double the allowable.
The International Maritime Employers Council too is groaning. Ships are being held at ports for overstaying crew. Yet those ports, like in Australia, do not allow crew change in their jurisdictions.
In the Philippines, Santos proposes reopening of international airports. About 4,000-6,000 seafarers a day need to land home or fly out. Flights need resumption from and to ports that allow crew change in Japan, Korea, Singapore, Hong Kong, the Netherlands, and the United States. Santos also asks for priority of seafarers in COVID-19 testing and result processing within 24 hours. The usual three to five days delay could cost them their jobs or missed flights.
Santos also suggests that the Philippines allow crew changes “Outside Port Limits” of Manila. International vessels plying the Philippines can discharge and accept crew in or near other ports (depending on depth) with quarantine facilities.