Kalaw: A Rappler short story

For more than a decade, T.M. Kalaw St. in Manila has been the center of the seafaring industry. Rappler looks at the future of the young cadets, and why any risk is worth shipping out.

A sailor waits along Kalaw street. Photo by Patricia Evangelista.

MANILA, Philippines – For more than a decade, T.M. Kalaw Street in Manila has been the center of the seafaring industry. Kalaw is where the waiting sailors bunk at night, where CDs of singing sailors moaning about unfaithful women are sold, where booths manned by recruiters, trainers and government agents crowd the small plaza and spill into the sidewalk. 

In a season of unemployment, Kalaw is where business still booms, and ship captains with Rolexes are hunted down by agencies to the tune of US$8,000 a month. The Philippines is among the top producers of maritime professionals in the international labor market, making up about a fifth of the 1.2 million seafarers worldwide. PRC chairperson Teresita Manzala says that the number of marine engineers rose from 47,000 in 2005 to 58,000 in 2010, while that of marine deck officers was up from 47,000 in 2005 to 63,000 in 2010.

In 2011, 60,121 registered Marine engineers and a total of 69,015 registered Marine deck officers. Filipino sailors continue to be in high demand, but it is not the case for the hundreds of new cadets who march out of maritime school. Experience is key, and so are relationships.

The dream of every new sailor begins with an apprenticeship in a reputable liner, and it is only after the 6-month-to-a-year service as a deck cadet that a sailor can hire on as a ship’s officer with a salary of about a thousand dollars. On April and May every year, Kalaw floods with young men who march down the length of the sidewalks, carrying signs for job openings issued by their agencies. The cadets act as errand boys, recruiting for agencies, hoping for goodwill, while their backers — uncles, family friends, maybe a cousin or a brother in the industry — push with their contacts to take on their bright-eyed boys.

The cadet

Without a backer, says 22-year-old Jay Halongong, the P200,000 his family spent on his education would not matter, neither will the money he has spent for additional training. According to the Mariners Polytech training center, new graduates who undergo training spend from P4,300 to P6,000. This increases depending on the type of training a seaman is required to undergo by a company. Most of the applicants are middle class, because of the investment necessary for a sailor’s training. 

Halongong’s uncle has been his backer for years, encouraging him and his brother to choose maritime school because of the possibility of large future salaries. Halongong is the son of a former security guard and a seamstress. His father has been laid off, his mother is the family breadwinner. On 2010, after his graduation, Jay Halongong headed to Kalaw Street like all the other new cadets. He is of average height, and lanky, unlike the other more muscled seamen. He failed his medical exam that year, and decided to stop applying for apprenticeships. 

Instead, Halongong took a job as a data encoder, bringing home P5,000 every 15 days, an amount smaller than the allowance he would have received as an apprentice on a ship. His parents and uncles eventually told him to resign and return to Kalaw, where he now walks the length of the street, hoping to recruit a willing captain he could deliver to the agency door.

He has been waiting months, and will probably wait more, but he has been promised a place, although his backer is hounding the agency. His uncle says he better be on a ship by the time his own makes for shore. Halongong hopes for an apprenticeship soon, before he hits 25 and is too old to be a ship’s officer. 

The nurse

Don Saavedra took up nursing because of the high demand while he was in college. That demand fizzled out when he graduated, and he never bothered to take his boards. Instead, Saavedra decided to be a seaman.

He was rejected once because of his inexperience, pushing him to take the variety of recommended training programs available along Kalaw. Now he is back, fresh from his first international trip.

It was easy to get his place, he said, once he had the training. His backer was a family friend. In 2 months, he will be back on the waters. For now, he hangs out in Kalaw, goes out with friends, and has showered his family with gifts. He saved a hundred thousand on this first trip, and he plans to make more.

The street

This is Kalaw, where sailors wait for their ship to come. The job is brutal, the risk is death, it is stark and lonely and has driven sons from their mothers and wives from husbands. But in a season of unemployment and rising costs, it is Kalaw where men come to hope. – Rappler.com