Monday, February 21, 2011

Piracy and forced servitude

This was my column on the date indicated above. This post is antedated.

There are so many Filipino seafarers or merchant marines —more commonly known by the politically incorrect label seamen—that there is a joke that at any given time, there is a Filipino in every square mile of ocean or sea in this world.

There is a morbid version of the joke, one about there being a Filipino in every ship that gets hijacked by Somali pirates or that meets some other disaster in the high seas. We Filipinos truly know how to make fun of our misfortunes. I remember being at a forum last year where someone in the audience put to task some official from the Philippine Overseas Employment Agency for not doing enough to protect Filipino seafarers, suggesting that the government put a stop to the deployment of seafarers in the meantime that the Somali pirates continue to terrorize ships in international waters near the coast of Somalia. The hapless guy from the POEA tried to make light of the situation by correcting what he said was a wrong impression. “It is true that there is a Filipino in every ship that meets a misfortune… but in the Philippines,” he deadpanned.

Like most Filipinos, I have family members—a brother and some cousins —who are seafarers. Thus, you can imagine our reaction every single time we hear of news of another hijacking incident committed by Somali pirates.

According to the International Maritime Organization, there are at least 685 seafarers of various nationalities on board 30 ships currently being held for ransom by Somali pirates along various locations across the Somali coastline. A number of Filipino casualties have been reported recently in one of the hijacked ships.

The activities of Somali pirates have become increasingly alarming because they have extended their hijacking operations beyond the coast of Somalia to the wider Indian Ocean. Their tactics have also become more devious as they now resort to using hijacked ships to attack other ships using crews on board as human shields.

Given the vast area that is covered by the hijacking operations of Somali pirates and the complications brought about by the need to safeguard the lives of the hostages, trying to find a solution to the problem has proved difficult.

A Norwegian shipping magnate recently came under intense criticism for suggesting that pirates captured off the horn of Africa be executed on the spot and their ships sunk. Jacob Stolt-Nielsen, founder of one of the top shipping groups in Norway- a country known as a seafaring nation and peace broker in many armed conflicts not to mention being home of the Nobel Prize- reminded everyone that his proposed penalty has been the historical way of dealing with pirates. He said that the piracy problem cannot be solved by treating pirates lightly.

“Pirates captured in international waters have always been punished by death, often on the spot,” he wrote in the op-ed pages of Norwegian financial newspaper Dagens Naeringsliv, arguing that modern navies should deal with the problem like Roman pirate hunter Pompey did more than 2,000 years ago. As can be expected, the proposal drew rebuke from various international groups. Some called the proposal “barbaric” while others insisted that even criminals—in this case, pirates—have rights.

I also get a little uncomfortable every time someone argues for the rights of criminals. But it is difficult to ignore the other factors that drive people to commit crimes. It is also difficult to condemn criminals of other nationalities when we have made it a point to appeal for clemency every single time one of our own gets convicted in other countries for various crimes.

Nevertheless, it is important that the Philippine government make more active representations with international bodies that are trying to address the problem of piracy in the Coast of Somalia. We can also make sure that no Filipino seafarer boards ships that do not adhere to international guidelines prescribed by international bodies such as the IMO to deter piracy attacks. The guidelines, unfortunately, are written in gobbledygook—traditional officialese language that makes comprehension difficult. From what I could understand, there are surveillance, identification and tracking devices in place in the area and that information on location of possible pirates are available for ships that are registered with certain international bodies. Unfortunately, not all shipping companies think such preventive measures are effective.

The problems that our seafarers face, however, are not limited to the widespread piracy that is happening at the Coast of Somalia.

In fact, if government agencies responsible for monitoring and regulating the maritime industry really want to safeguard the welfare of our seafarers, they should begin right at the start of the whole employment process for seafarers.

The shipping companies and the manning agencies responsible for employing Filipino seafarers have this system of forced servitude in place. It’s the worst kind of exploitation imaginable and the worst part of it is that everybody knows that the system is in place. Our government officials know about it, our legislators know about it. Media people know about it. The parents and the friends of seafarers know about it.

I am referring to the system that requires first-time seafarers to serve as “cadets” at the offices of shipping companies and manning agencies for indeterminate periods of time. I know some aspiring seafarers who toil as janitors, drivers, messengers, cooks, even houseboys who are serve the officials and employees of the shipping companies and manning agencies for months and years before they are finally allowed to board ships. The system operates under the guise of strengthening the resilience and the fortitude of future seafarers. They are supposed to be undergoing training that will be valuable in their quest for survival in the high seas.

I have been to offices of shipping companies and manning agencies where these so-called cadets do the most menial of tasks. I’ve seen “cadets” stand behind some lowly-employee acting as some kind of manservant. They are supposed to be undergoing training on the finer points of seafaring but actually serve time as unpaid, exploited extra hands that do the dirtiest, the most tedious, the most basic of tasks that do not require any particular skill befitting someone who finished marine or nautical engineering.

Did I say they are unpaid? Companies use the services of these people without paying them anything in return— nothing as in zilch, nada. And that many among them labor for more than 12 months before they get into some list of candidates that can be considered for deployment in some ship? That some of them don’t actually get to board ships at all?

It’s the worst kind of exploitation imaginable because many of these seafarers come from the provinces with barely nothing to tide them over the whole time they are in the “cadetship program.” They practically live on the mercy of friends and relatives.

I wonder when and what it will take for officials of the government agencies responsible for the maritime industry to look kindly on the plight of our seafarers.

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