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Tough times for hardy seafarers

Tough times for hardy seafarers
Malaya Business Insight - April 19, 2024

IT used to be that Filipinos and their government officials were proud of the world’s shipping industry employing thousands of seafarers from the Philippines. It is said that if you enter any ocean-going vessel, there is a good chance that at least one Filipino is aboard. But now, global geopolitics has become so uncertain that the livelihood of our seamen has become precarious.

In 2023, about 490,000 Filipino seafarers were deployed, constituting around 25 percent of the world’s mariners. Our seamen usually remit $6.5 million to $7 million every year, or roughly 1.8 percent of the country’s gross domestic product.

The seafarers — the lifeblood of the maritime industry and a vital sector in the Philippine economy — are now troubled by increasing violent attacks from forces fighting wars in which the Philippines is hardly a participant.

Last week, Iranian security forces attacked the container ship MSC Aries for allegedly violating the rules and for its link to Israel. The attack was timed to coincide with the drone-and-missile offensive Iranian launched against Israel, in retaliation to the former’s bombing of his consular office in Syria. The Department of Migrant Workers (DMW) has confirmed that four Filipinos were aboard the seized MSC Aries.

Earlier last November, a group of Houthi rebels linked also to Iran hijacked the Bahamas-flagged Galaxy Leader over its connection to Israel and vowed that “all ships belonging to the Israeli enemy or that deal with it will become legitimate targets.” The hijacking occurred in the Red Sea and the adjoining Gulf of Aden, a crucial shipping route connecting Europe with the Middle East and Asia. The sad thing is that 17 out of the 25 hostages are Filipino seafarers.

The counter-move by the Philippine government is to negotiate for the release of its citizens, and implore the friendship and cooperation of other nations on this problem. The DMW also advised employers of Filipino seamen to observe payment of appropriate wages and benefits if their operations involve areas that are classified as “war-like” and “high-risk” waters. With the continued extraordinary risk being faced by Filipinos working in ships, the DMW on Tuesday said it will recommend the Strait of Hormuz to be classified as a “high-risk area” for seafaring activities following Iran’s seizure of an Israel-linked ship in the waterway over the weekend.

Undersecretary Hans Leo Cacdac said the DMW will make the recommendation to the International Bargaining Forum (IBF), a global platform that brings together the International Transport Workers Federation and the international maritime employers that comprise the joint negotiation group.

“Ensuring the safety and well-being of our Filipino seafarers is not just a priority, it’s our mission. By spearheading the push for this high-risk area (HRA) designation, we are taking a proactive stance to encourage stricter enforcement of security measures and provide our seafarers with the necessary safeguards during their passage,” Cacdac said.

The IBF designated the Gulf of Aden as an HRA while the Red Sea was included in the “war-like zones” (WLZs) list.

Cacdac reiterated that Filipino seafarers have the right to refuse to sail in areas deemed as HRAs and WLZs by the IBF. But more than this, the Philippine government must tighten its cooperation with various stakeholders in the global maritime industry to achieve a better and more secure maritime environment, such as the crucial designation of the Strait of Hormuz as an HRA.

Definitely, only through collective efforts can we ensure the safety of our seafarers. And one such initiative is President Marcos Jr.’s reaching out to Indian officials, particularly Minister of External Affairs Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, whom he personally thanked for the Indian Navy’s successful rescue of Filipino seafarers aboard MV True Confidence in the Gulf of Aden.

Cooperation in the open seas is the way to survive these tough times.