Tribute to Seafarers: Church missions and advocacy groups call for swift passage of Seafarers’ Magna Carta

As a prelude to the upcoming International Day of the Seafarer on 25 June, an online tribute to maritime workers brought together advocates and mission workers from different organizations and Church groups on Saturday, 21 June. The webinar entitled “Tribute to Seafarers: Where do we go from here?” was jointly organized by the Iglesia Filipina Independiente, Mission To Seafarers (MTS), German Seamen’s Mission, the International Seafarers’ Action Center (ISAC), and Migrante International.

The online event began with a few moments of silence to remember the departed seafarers which was then followed by a prayer offered by Fr. Chris Ablon of the Iglesia Filipina Independiente. Right from the start of the program, Migrante Australia Chairperson Carmelita Baltazar expressed support for Makabayan Bloc’s House Bill 6588.”Let us give our support for the passage of House Bill 6588 on the Magna Carta of Seafarers, to uphold the welfare and protection of seafarers and their families,” Baltasar exclaimed. 

Tribute organizers recognized Filipino seafarers for their outstanding qualities and their contributions to the national economy and the global maritime industry. Nevertheless, the groups lamented that seafarers experience low wages, long working hours, less benefits, less social protection, racial discrimination and hazardous working conditions. The COVID19 pandemic revealed the longstanding vulnerability and exploitation of SF worldwide, leaving thousands stranded for months, receiving delayed or no medical attention and assistance, and limited financial aid and benefits.

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A seafarer for ten years, Charito Bongahoy said, “during the quarantine, it was really a struggle to obtain relief for our boarding house. What’s appalling is that we submitted our applications to DOLE-OWWA-AKAP. They asked for numerous requirements and it really takes a very long time before applications get granted…we’d rather endure hunger than allow our families to starve.”

Lloyd Chris Bacasmot, another displaced seafarer remarked, “I haven’t been back to the ship for three months now, and I have not heard anything from our company. How can I sustain myself for another day without money? I only have 50 pesos in my pocket right now. What will I give to my family?”

Providing an overview of the general situation of migrants amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, Joanna Concepcion of Migrante International deplored that the global health crisis is being used by employers, agencies or brokers to violate the labour rights of our migrant workers. The capacity of migrant workers who are mainly breadwinners of their families to send money to support the basic needs of their loved ones back home in the Philippines have been reduced or cut off. “Thousands of qualified overseas Filipinos who applied for the Philippine government’s one time financial assistance for OFWs displaced by the covid pandemic have not received financial support..given the impact of the pandemic on the global economy, our land based and seabased migrant workers are fearful of how they and their families will survive,” Concepcion stated. 

Citing latest figures, Atty. Edwin dela Cruz of the International Seafarers’ Action Center (ISAC) said that there are about 400,000 stranded seafarers languishing in ships, ports, airports and in host countries. Prior to the pandemic, there were already up to 1.5 Million seafarers worldwide, and among them are 700,000 Filipino seafarers but only 420,000 are hired at any given time. Dela Cruz discussed the various issues faced by seafarers including the high cost of commercialized education, contractualization and the absence of security of tenure. He pointed out that although the 2006 Maritime Labour Convention already contains laudable provisions, it needs enactment of a pertinent legislation in order for it to be enforced locally. “The very good provisions of the Maritime Labour Convention should be implemented through the Magna Carta of Seafarers,” Dela Cruz stated’ 

Among the Magna Carta stipulations being pushed by ISAC are the following: compensation for illness and injury due to fatigue, stress, emotional trauma, due to sea voyage; rights of cadets to decent wages and banning OJT charges exacted by shipping companies; regularization after working cumulatively for 1-year; right to organize; right to raise complaints from third party representatives; and access to shore leave.

The Magna Carta for Seafarers or House Bill 6588 was filed by the Makabayan Bloc on 11 March. “We have high expectations that the Magna Carta for Seafarers will be approved. Nevertheless, without political will from the Philippine government to enforce it, it will be spineless so it is really important that seafarers organize themselves.”

Loved ones and family members of Filipino seafarers who spoke in the program likewise gave their all-out support for the bill and expressed their gratefulness to all groups upholding the rights and welfare of seafarers. Most of these groups also work with the families of seafarers like the Mission To Seafarers (MTS). Lailani Tolentino of MTS saluted the ‘Front liners of the Sea’ for their hard work in maintaining the world’s supply chain. MTS has been mobilizing its volunteers and staff to provide food relief, free transportation and counselling services to seafarers and their families. 

Meanwhile, Fr. Jun Mark Yañez of the German Seamen’s Mission said, “We have always been helping our seafarers but we would like to see more of these initiatives from the government.” This was backed by Elmer Labog, chairperson of Kilusang Mayo Uno. “Due to the pandemic, distressed and displaced Filipino workers, both seabased and land based, are returning in huge droves back to the Philippines. During our visit to stranded OFWs neglected in NAIA’s airport terminals, I personally saw the ugly truth behind the Duterte government’s loudly vaunted ‘VIP treatment’ of OFWs. As for DOLE’s (Department of Labour and Employment) AKAP cash assistance program, it is more appropriate to call it DOLE APAK (trample) because it is not true that the vast majority of OFWs are able to avail of such aid. Our support for Makabayan Bloc’s Magna Carta for Seafarers anchors on our strong demand to the Duterte government to respect the basic interest of workers in terms of wages, benefits and rights,” Labog concluded.