The Philippines is one of the leading sources of seafarers in the world. At any given time, there are at least 400,000 Filipinos working on board ocean-going vessels including bulk carriers, cargo, tankers, and passenger vessels which are mainly cruise ships. In 2015, the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA), the government body on Overseas Filipino Workers (OFW), revealed that out of 404,000 Filipino seafarers, some 161,000 are non-nautical, meaning that they are not engine or deck crew. This category refers to those, who work not in nautical occupations. This includes workers on cruise ships, as well as a small number of workers on platforms, oil rigs and research ships.
The basic of this category of cruise ship workers, unlike their nautical counterparts, are exceedingly low, ranging from US $ 175 to $ 350 per month, for cabin stewards, waiters, bartenders, kitchen utility and other difficult jobs. The rationale is that their basic wages are augmented by gratuities or tips. This is dependent on whether they have pleased the guest or not and makes the worker vulnerable to exploitation and abuse. There are many documented cases of sexual, physical and verbal abuse of seafarers by guests and by their superiors.
“Within the ethnically diverse workforce of the cruise industry, Filipino seafarers are one of the largest single nationality groups of workers on-board. Their dominance in service occupations aboard cruise ships seems to indicate that they are recognised as ‘perfect workers’. A review of popular literature from the cruise companies, cruise passengers, and the Philippine state and its agencies suggest that Filipino seafarers are portrayed as workers with the qualities of being ‘hard-working’, ‘flexible’, ‘subservient’, ‘family-oriented’, ‘happy’ and ‘nice’.” states Mark Oliver Salariosa Llangco in his doctoral thesis on the working lives of filipino (S.57)
The ‘perfect workers’ trapped in imperfect contracts
Thus, Filipino seafarers may be regarded by the cruise ship industry as “perfect workers,” but the seafarers’ working conditions are deeply flawed. From the moment of recruitment, when they are promised glamorous jobs and the chance to see the world, the seafarers are exploited. Although more and more cruise ship companies established their own training centers, where workers are trained at the costs of the company especially for the hotel and restaurant area, still too many workers are made to undergo expensive certification courses and trainings by recruitment agencies. Often they are exploited as unpaid on-the-job trainees, without any certainty that they will be hired.
When the seafarer is hired, he is covered by a POEA Standard Employment Contract. Its major drawback is that it treats the employment, which ranges from 3 to 11 months, as a one-time fixed contract without any security of tenure. The contract has to be renegotiated after the term has ended. It does not matter if the seafarer has been working for one or for twenty successive contracts. In most cases, he or she never becomes a regular tenured worker but remains perpetually employed on successive short-term contracts.
Bad working condition aboard
The work on board is tedious, repetitive and stressful. Aside from the agreed regular hours, the workers are made to perform over-time work.
They are exposed to the elements and the risk of sea voyage. But when they get sick, injured or overly stressed, it is very hard for them to assert their rights. The POEA Contract makes it very difficult for the seafarer, including those on cruise ships, to claim medical attention, sick pay, disability benefits due to injury or illness, or death benefits because the seafarer must prove that his condition is work-related in order to be compensated. This is a long and litigious process that requires the services of lawyers to sue the Protection and Indemnity (P and I) clubs that can hire big law firms to block claims.
The social costs of labour migration
The social costs of working on cruise ships do not only affect the OFWs, but also the communities left behind, similar to the situation of all OFWs. The impacts are most seriously felt by the children, who may feel abandoned. A UNICEF study by Melanie M. Reyesfrom 2008 revealed how migration of parents, permanent or temporary, is indeed heart-breaking for children making them long for parental care, they may get confused over gender roles, be vulnerable to abuse, and develop unusual consumerist attitudes. Besides, marital dysfunction may also result because of the absence of spouses. Nevertheless, the income of the absent parent helps provide education for the children and material benefits, like access to better housing.
The Philippines government as a driving force of labour migration
Despite the social costs, Filipinos are spurred to work abroad on ships and land-based work because of the absence of viable work opportunities in the country itself. This is worsened by the labor export policy of the Philippine government that keeps the Filipino seafarers underpaid, docile, and without tenure, because the economy is largely dependent on the dollar remittances of OFWs, including seafarers in cruise ships. According to the statistics of the central bank of the Philippines, the amount of remittances in dollars sent by sea-based Filipino workers in 2014 made up approximately U$5.6 billion, up from U$5.2 billion in 2013.
There is the severe risk, that the rights of the seafarers on cruise ships may be watered down even further in order to keep them marketable by creating a separate POEA contract for them. Many of the protective provision of the old POEA contract seafarers would be removed. The government is pushing for this watered down contract because the labor export program treats seafarers as commodities to sell, instead of as human beings with rights and dignity. They are kept as “perfect workers” in a deeply flawed cruise ship industry. Only the organized and united voices of the cruise ship seafarers can stop this scheme.
Edwin Dela Cruz is the president of the International Seafarers Action Center (ISAC) Philippines Foundation, a non-profit NGO committed to empowering seafarers to assert their rights and welfare.