ACCORDING to data from various government and industry sources, there are approximately 1.6 million seafarers manning 50,000 commercial shipping currently operating around the world. Of these 1.6 million workers, about 230,000 of them - about 14.4 percent - are from the Philippines, making them the largest group (closely followed by seafarers from India) among the world's maritime workforce.
What the government and the public here does not seem to be aware of, however, is that these hardworking men and women are in the midst of a crisis of grave proportions, putting their livelihoods, their well-being and the well-being of their families in jeopardy.
Unlike their counterparts in the cruise industry, whose woeful experiences of being stranded aboard idled passenger ships in the first months of the Covid-19 pandemic were fairly well-documented, the commercial shipping workforce has been largely overlooked. Much of this can be attributed to the fact that, in contrast to most other workers, commercial seafarers have not faced unemployment or job reductions. Pandemic restrictions did result in reductions in the number of seafarers deployed from the Philippines in the first few months of 2020, and there was briefly a lull in shipping activity at the beginning of last year; commercial ship traffic in the first quarter of last year was about 9 percent lower than in the previous year.
On the whole, however, employment for seafarers has remained gainful throughout the pandemic. Then beginning in late March-early April of last year, it exploded; demand for consumer goods skyrocketed as quarantined populations turned to online shopping to relieve the tension and boredom of being stuck at home.
As a result, the commercial shipping industry has been pushed to its limits and beyond. At the beginning of 2020, about 10 percent of the world's shipping fleet was idle, parked in out-of-the-way anchorages. As of this month, every seaworthy vessel has been returned to service, and orders for new ships, each of which takes two years or longer to build, have soared. The sharp increase in shipping rates, which have nearly quadrupled from an average of about $1,500 per 40-foot container in May 2020 to about $5,500 as of this month, has done nothing to slow demand or the intense pace of work for the global fleet's personnel.
Therein lies the crisis for Filipino seafarers as well as those from any other country. Due to ongoing pandemic restrictions, workers are prevented from leaving their ships, even for medical attention in some cases, according to some reports. Many of them have been aboard their vessels for considerably longer than the legal limit of 11 months, forced to keep working beyond the end of their contracts.
Unable to take a break, isolated from their families, the maritime workforce is being stretched to the breaking point, and the effects are beginning to manifest themselves in a sharp rise in accidents, shipboard incidents among crews, and even suicides. In a recent media interview, the CEO of one maritime group that manages crewing for 375 ships said: "The mental well-being of people has been very, very difficult. We have picked up seafarers from the water. All that [suicides or attempted suicides] has definitely increased."
The government's efforts toward social support for any group during the pandemic have focused on economic concerns, and that is understandable because financial issues are easy to define and quantify. However, it is quite clear that "welfare" involves more than just monetary or other material support.
Clearly, the situation Filipino seafarers is a difficult one that does not have obvious solutions, but the government must find a way to address it. No matter what sacrifices the pandemic requires of anyone, they should not include being forced to work without relief, or under conditions that violate long-established basic standards. We urge the government and the relevant agencies to properly investigate the circumstances of Filipino seafarers and find ways to meet their needs, for their sake as well as for that of the families who rely on them, and who wish to see them home safely.