Seafarers and COVID-19: uncharted waters and strong headwinds
MANILA – While media outlets quote Socioeconomic Planning Secretary Ernesto M. Pernia believes the coronavirus pandemic would simple have “transitory” impact on poverty numbers, strong headwinds seem to lie before the country’s seafarers and the manning industry in general.
Magsaysay People Resources Corporation’s President and CEO Marlon R. Roño said with the COVID-19 pandemic, all cruise companies have decided to stop their operations from 30 to 60 days while some opted to cease operations for a longer period.
“There are over 40,000 Filipino seafarers working in cruise ships both in hotel or hospitality or technical departments,” he said in an email to this writer. He admitted some companies have begun repatriating their crew and he sees a major repatriation for the non-essential crew.
As uncertainty remains, Roño explained both the hospitality and cruise industries are dependent on normal conditions. Today, Magsaysay People Resources Corporation maintains a pool of over 25,000 cruise personnel which saw a considerable growth over the past five years.
“There are new cruise ships and due for delivery in the next two years and would definitely require thousands of Filipino crewmen,” he added.
Atty. Iris Baguilat of Doehle Seafront Crewing Manila said her agency provides manpower to more than 200 cargo ships ferrying liquid and dry cargo for the past years.
She said COVID-19 rendered her agency unable to replace crew onboard ships whose contracts have expired.
“While flights are available and POEA contract processing can be done online, there is too much disruption in the travel stream due to the quarantine rules of each country so there is now difficulty for a crew to take air flights to join ships in countries where they are calling,” she said in a separate email to this writer.
She added most shipowners and ship managers “proactively stopped” changes in their crew to protect the health of the seafarers onboard and avoid contamination that could be brought by new arrivals.
“Each one of us has to do our share to exercise over-abundance of caution by extreme social distance even if we bear a commercial impact,” she explained. She noted while the number of seafarers increased over the years, the number of seafarers in non-hotel capacity has decreased.
As far as Capt. Eduardo Flores, who logged 25 years in the manning industry is concerned, getting seafarers home would turn to be the biggest problem between seafarers, shipowners and the government because they need to be under quarantine for two weeks before their departure for home.
“Will the country where they will disembark allow them to go ashore? Will the shipowners compensate them for the remaining part of the contract?,” he asked in an email to this writer. He said COVID-19’s effect will be felt by cruise ship seafarers and manning agencies although those in the cargo transshipment are still in operation. Seafarers may have no income for at least two months while manning agencies will like be affected because some are paid on a per head basis.
Citing POEA figures in 2018, Capt. Flores said there were lesser deployment from the traditional seafarers as the deployment of relievers of people onboard remains unpredictable.
“To be fair with the government, there is nothing they could do at the moment because everyone was caught flatfooted by the coronavirus,” he further said. He added the only way to help the affected seafarers would be the assistance from the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration whose funds come from every overseas Filipino worker.
OWWA Administrator Hans Leo Cacdac said over a thousand OFWs who arrived and left the country were extended food, transport and accommodation through 100 OWWA employees helping overseas workers.
In his message last week, he said this is not the time to extend financial assistance as he would not prefer people to leave their homes and risk their health conditions due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Reacting to reports that about 10,000 seafarers will return to the country after the cruise and hospitality industries have been severely affected by the pandemic, Administrator Cacdac said they will not return altogether.
“Most of them are still onboard their respective ships, and this far have mutually agreed with their shipowners to stay there,” he said. He explained the seafarers have food, free single occupancy accommodation and hotel facilities.
He clarified the 10,000 seafarers’ employment “is just put on hold while cruise ship operations have ceased” with the commitment from their manning agencies of reemployment as soon as operations resume.
He sees a bigger problem from land-based Filipino workers all over the world who demand from OWWA to give their families pantawid assistance. There are reports there are about two million OFWs worldwide.
Atty. Baguilat said the seafarers are the front liners in the maritime industry, being responsible for moving 90% of world cargo. She said her agency, their ship owners and managers are currently holding off crew changes to protect both the crew on board and remain in community quarantine and the late arrivals from the risk of exposure during travel to their respective assigned ships.
“While these precautionary measures are hurting the ship owners and operators and seafarers themselves, we believe the primary goal is our global safety and health by flattening the COVID-19 growth rate curve.
Data from the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas revealed contributions from sea-based workers ranged from a low of 14.48% to a high of 22.69% of cash remittances for the past ten years.
In 2019, from a total of US$30,133,300 in foreign remittances, 21.70% came from seafarers with US$6,539,246.
Last year, foreign remittances contributed 9.3 percent to the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) and 7.8 percent to gross national income (GNI). The seafaring sector is one important part of overseas employment. (Melo M. Acuña)
A regular scene at NAIA Terminal 1. (Melo M. Acuna)