After 6 months stranded in China, 11 seafarers now going home

After more than 6 months of being forced to quarantine on their vessel off the waters of China, 11 Filipino crew members of Oceanstar 86 are set to fly back to the Philippines on Monday evening, September 28.

“Sobrang saya namin (We are so happy),” seafarer Anthony Medina told Rappler via Facebook messenger. Medina also sent an emoji of a puppy jumping up and down to show how excited the crew is to go home.

Lockdown measures to contain the spread of COVID-19 have closed borders and sealed off ports,  leaving an estimated 300,000 seafarers around the world floating at sea, with no way to disembark and nearly no way for new crew members to replace them. The Trade Union Congress of the Philippines (TUCP) estimates that there could be about 180,000 trapped Filipino seafarers across the globe.

Last August, the crew of Oceanstar 86 sent Rappler a video showing their dire onboard living conditions and pleaded for their immediate rescue.  Men slept on the floor, lying next to washing machines, while other crew members laid down underneath tables, in what appeared to be a dining area crowded with boxes and personal belongings. The crew were only allowed to use a water kettle to heat the relief goods that they received.

The Philippine Consulate in Xiamen has been sending the crew supplies since they were stranded but Eduardo Menez, spokesperson for the Department of Foreign Affairs in Manila, said logistics makes it difficult to send supplies regularly.  

Menez confirmed that the Consulate sent relief goods, personal hygiene items, as well as masks and alcohol to the crew last September 25.

A global maritime crisis with the Philippines at the center

The Philippines is at the center of a global pandemic that has collided with maritime operations, leaving thousands of seafarers locked down in their ships, barred from returning home.

“Repatriating seafarers, in particular, is made more challenging due to docking and disembarkation restrictions for vessels set by local authorities and the severely limited number of flights,” the Department of Foreign Affairs - Manila (DFA) said in a statement.

The DFA has been working with various governments to assist stranded seafarers all over the world. The latest data as of September 24 shows the agency has brought home more than 66,000 stranded seafarers “despite the various travel restrictions and lockdowns in place worldwide brought by the COVID-19 pandemic.”

But when they return home, seafarers face another struggle – collecting their unpaid wages for the months that they were stranded on board their vessels.

“Hangga’t hindi tumutuntong sa lupa (sa Pilipinas) ang mga seafarers, dapat may sweldo sila,” said Edwin dela Cruz, lawyer and president of the International Seafarers’ Action Center. [Seafarers should receive their salary for the entire period that they are at sea and until their feet touch the ground again (in the Philippines).]

“Ang mga shipowners ay inabandon na ang atin mga seafarers. Takot naman yung iba mag-reklamo kasi baka ma-blacklist sila ng manning agency," dela Cruz added [Shipowners have abandoned our seafarers. But others are scared to complain because they might be blacklisted by their manning agency.]

Last July, almost 100 crew members on the different Fu Yuan Yu fishing commercial fishing vessels were repatriated to the Philippines after being stranded for months in China.  After undergoing mandatory quarantine, more than a dozen seafarers led by Harold Fuentes and Jesus Gaboni headed to Global Maritime Crew, Inc. in Pasay City to demand their unpaid salaries and other benefits like their seaman’s certificate and overtime pay.

Two months later, the crew still have not received their salaries. A copy of their contract secured by Rappler showed the men were promised $250 monthly, $130 in overtime pay, and other bonuses like vacation leave with pay.

Jean Javellana, who is listed as president of Global Maritime Crew, Inc. could not be reached for comment.

The crew have filed a case against the manning agency in the Philippine Overseas Employment Agency (POEA) and the National Labor Relations Commission (NLRC) for their unpaid wages and benefits.

Labor rights group Migrante International also called on the government to uphold their commitment to extend DOLE-AKAP assistance in the amount of $200 to the seafarers. “It has been two months since they have been repatriated…they urgently need to provide for their families who continue to be severely impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic,” said chairperson of Migrante International Joanna Concepcion in a statement.

Labor rights group said that the dire situation of stranded seafarers highlights the urgent need to pass laws that will lay out protections for seafarers, particularly migrant deep sea fisherfolk who are the most vulnerable because of their brutal working and living conditions that have been compared to slavery at sea.

The TUCP and the International Seafarers’ Action Center called for the government to ratify International Labour Organization 188 or Work in Fishing Convention which sets international standards for the safety and protection of the crew.

Among the major countries operating commercial fishing vessels, only Thailand has ratified the Work in Fishing Convention.

Dela Cruz of the International Seafarers’ Action Center called for the passage of House Bill 6588 or the Magna Carta of Seafarers to secure tenure for seafarers by proposing that seafarers will enjoy the same benefits and protections as a regular employee after they have worked with one shipping company for one year. Currently, each voyage of a seafarer is contractual. Sailors set sail under a contract that is usually 11 months long. When the contract ends, the sailors are not assured of job continuity.

The fishing industry is particularly oppressive and exploitative,” said Luis Manuel Corral, vice-president of the TUCP. According to Corral, the local manning agency and the ship owner have a joint and shared responsibility to pay seafarers their proper wages.

With a maritime history that dates back to the Galleon Trade during Spanish colonial rule, the Philippines supplies about a quarter of the world’s 1.2 million seafarers. Last year, remittances from seafarers totaled $6.14bn. – Rappler.com