As the Philippines deploys thousands of Filipino seafarers to ships, some are also returning home after completing their contracts and others have decided to retire.
In my decades of working in the maritime industry—first at the Maritime Industry Authority, then at the International Maritime Organization, and now doing maritime consultancies part-time—I have interacted with many active Filipino seafarers, both in meetings and chance encounters. The conversations I had with them always centered on their next shipboard assignment or the wish to get a fresh contract, even as their last one just ended. And these seafarers range from 22 to over 60 years old. Immediately one may conclude that seafaring must be so fulfilling that its practitioners would wish to continue going to sea as long as their age and stamina allow.
This does not appear to apply in other maritime nations, like Malaysia and Indonesia. There, seafarers, at age 30, are already look forwarding to retiring at age 35 to 40. When asked why they wish to retire that young, they would usually cite family and the ability to pursue land-based economic activities as reasons.
In Malaysia, there are employment opportunities on land could attract even those in shipboard deployment. To
some seafarers, it’s a good time to shift from shipboard to land-based jobs while they are neither too young nor too old.
The merchant marine profession is restrained by age and physical factors, unlike in land-based fields, including accountancy, engineering and law, whose practitioners may continue to work despite their age and physical limitations. My 72-year-old sister in-law continues to be lead accountant in a real-estate company; we cannot expect a seafarer to command a ship at that age. Yes, harbor pilots still embark on ships, but only for a limited time, usually no more than a day—and that is work considered shore-based.
Seafarers’ desire for long sea jobs? It’s either fortitude or necessity.
There is no question that shipowners prefer Filipino seafarers. I once asked a 50-year-old-plus seafarer if he plans to retire in two to five years, and the white-haired, bespectacled man replied: “No, ma’am. For as long as the company hires me—and I expect they will, because I am qualified and they consider my services as good—I will continue to work onboard.”
This claim of the seafarer’s indispensability—and the attractive renumeration package his job offers—is a main reason for his desire to continue going to sea.
According to Capt. Jess Morales, president of the Integrated Seafarers of the Philippines, Filipino seafarers continue to enjoy the confidence of shipowners worldwide. He said, however, there is a downside for seafarers who don’t want to retire, even if they’re over 60. Young seafarers and merchant marine officers’ opportunities to go up the career ladder are delayed, as no one can move up unless there is a vacant position in the shipboard manning hierarchy.
Many seafarers who continue to work despite their age or physical limitations do so as the prospects of encountering financial and economic problems become real. There are no ready jobs waiting for them, so how would they meet their yet-unfinished obligations to provide education and housing, and maintain their respective families’ well-being?
Morales is a staunch advocate for the adoption of a reintegration program for returning seafarers. He said its purpose is not to draw away Filipino seafarers from their profession, but to prepare them for life after seafaring, regardless of age. To make them ready to take on shore-based economic and professional endeavors, to reintegrate themselves into the community that they left long ago for life at sea.
The program, Morales said, builds on the practices and programs for overseas Filipino workers, primarily land-based ones. Filipino seafarers have a broader range of opportunities, both in maritime and non-maritime ventures, and it is just a matter of making them aware of such opportunities and enabling them to move toward a non-seagoing undertaking.
Not too many stakeholders, both in government or industry, or the seafarers themselves, have reflected on the benefits of an reintegration program for seafarers. The assumption is always that seafarers who return or retire are coming back to a good life onshore. Perhaps, a few of them already have. If so, why not help all of them prepare for a productive and self-fulfilling life after seafaring?