SeafarersDiversity, equity, and inclusionTalentWorking conditions

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, which stranded or left jobless thousands of seafarers, Camille Simbulan, one of the Future Maritime Leaders essay competition winners, argues that we must look beyond the numbers and not forget the lives and stories behind them.

Numbers are intended to draw us the big picture. Day by day, we are bombarded with statistics on the newspapers, television or online– “8.7 million people infected by Covid-19, almost half a million casualties, over 300 million job losses,” and the list goes on. Numbers give us the big picture. But are numbers all we need to see the picture clearly?

The world has seen the vital role of the maritime industry in keeping the economies of countries afloat. As the ICS put it: “Shipping is the life blood of the global economy,” as 90% of the world trade is moved by 50,000 merchant ships manned by 1.6 million seafarers.

More than a quarter of the world’s seafarers come from the Philippines. In 2019, those 380,000 Filipino seafarers contributed $6.14 Billion to the Philippine economy. But over the past three months since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic and the Enhanced Community Quarantine imposed in the country, 50,000 Filipino seafarers have been repatriated. In that timeframe, the Philippine Overseas Employment Agency has only recorded 17,845 outbound or deployed seafarers: 15,595 male and 624 female seafarers in March, 591 male and 6 female sea-based workers in April and 1,020 male and 9 female seafarers in May, respectively.

If this trend continues, decent work and economic growth, as well as gender equality among maritime workers will be greatly affected. Even the good health and wellness of the seafarers on extended contracts and those struggling to go onboard are threatened in this grim situation.

In a survey I conducted among 54 stranded seafarers at AMOSUP Sailor’s Home in Manila, 43 of them or about 80% said they are worried. The reasons they stated for feeling this way are job loss, financial problem, emotional impact of being away from their families and the threat of Covid-19 to them and their loved ones. Among them is 52-year-old “Chuck,” who said he feels like his “world is crumbling” because of the crisis. Like Chuck, many of them are frustrated and helpless.

“It’s painful to see my family go hungry.” “I don’t know now how we are going to pay for our bills and loans.” “I’m trying to figure out how I am going to send my children to school.”

These stranded seafarers are part of the 300 million jobless workers reported by the International Labor Organization. These are their stories. They are the faces behind the numbers.

Amidst the global crisis, we have seen the importance of different institutions working together. The SYNERGY among the government and stakeholders, public or private, is crucial in saving the workers who drive the lifeblood of the global economy. We’ve seen gaps and challenges in the system in place, but all the more we should consider this an opportunity to strengthen our partnerships to take action more effectively.

Information is one of the most powerful tools today. With the right amount of synergy, the government, companies and other stakeholders can come up with a centralized information system on maritime workers. Seafarers are one of the most difficult labor sectors to monitor because the rotation of workers and the industry in general is rather fast-paced. In the existing system, various government agencies, companies, unions and other organizations have different data on seafarers. But with a centralized information system, updating, communicating with, and assisting seafarers especially in times of crisis, will be more efficient.

EDUCATING the public about the maritime industry is another area that we, as a community, can explore. Since time immemorial, the image of the maritime industry as a man’s world has been dragged on from generation to generation. The world must know that the maritime industry is moving forward towards diversity and inclusivity – and this must not just be tackled inside the four walls of maritime institutions, it must be echoed by the companies and governments in all corners of the globe.

It is equally important to ensure that workers are ADAPTABLE to change. Maritime workers must be taught that they are never just one thing. They are not robots programmed to work monotonously – they can upgrade their skills, open up themselves to grow and learn new abilities through trainings and personal development workshops. Their mental health should also constantly be kept in check through regular debriefing or counseling after they disembark.

The maritime community must also intensify its campaign for FAIRNESS and ACCOUNTABILITY especially among high-ranking officers onboard. I have encountered several women seafarers either bullied or harassed by their superiors onboard. But in many instances, they are intimidated and caught in the hierarchy in the ship. This results in their painful decision not to pursue their complaint despite our assistance and encouragement. But many employers do care about their crew and take action in such cases. These companies can take the lead and start by sharing their best practices and embolden other companies and stakeholders to
follow suit.

REINFORCING and EMPOWERING the maritime workforce through more accessible training and development is another step towards actualizing gender equality, decent work and economic growth, and good health and wellness. A workforce reinforced with competent and hardworking individuals is a strong workforce driven to maintain decent work and contribute to economic growth. Likewise, an EMPOWERED workforce is confident, fearless and mentally ready to face challenges, such as inequality, head on.

Putting all of these efforts together will create a more RESILIENT maritime community.

Now, what do these have to do with the realization of the Sustainable Development Goals? Unless we tackle the problems at hand at the core, we will not be able to effectively and progressively move forward as a community to achieve the SDGs. Let’s Synergize, Educate the world, make our workers Adaptable to change, push for Fairness and Accountability, Reinforce and Empower our workers and together, let’s build Resilience.

Of course we need the statistics. But it’s equally important to keep in mind the lives, the faces, and the stories behind the numbers. Let us look beyond the numbers – the SEAFARER is the answer.

Camille Simbulan is a 30-year-old from the Philippines who works as Special Projects and Communications Head at the Associated Marine Officers and Seamen’s Union of the Philippines (AMOSUP).