Unsung Filipino seafarers power the global economy

A crowded pavement alongside Luneta, a park in Manila next to the old Spanish walled city, bears witness every day to how Filipinos make the world go round. This is where recruiters from manning agencies that represent international shipowners go in search of crew. They put out battered tables as recruiting stations, or they wander among the throng of unemployed Filipino seamen, holding up signs headed “urgent”. Wanted are mates, engineers, radio officers, fitters and cooks; a valid American visa is often essential.

Parts of the Philippine archipelago have sent out seafarers since long before Spanish galleons plied between Manila and Acapulco. Modern-day Filipino mariners came to prominence with the oil crises of the 1970s, when the world’s shipping lines could no longer afford Western crews. Today, more than nine-tenths of global trade (by weight) is carried by sea, on some 100,000 merchant vessels drawing on a pool of 1.2m mariners. Of these, well over a quarter, 378,000, are Filipinos—by far the biggest number by country of origin. On any day, perhaps 250,000 Filipino mariners are at sea. If they stayed at home, the world economy would convulse.

Engineer Nelson Ramirez, president of the United Filipino Seafarers (ufs), which fights for seafarers’ rights, lists the qualities of Filipino seamen. They speak English. They are hardworking. They are well-trained (the Philippines boasts scores of marine colleges). And they are adaptable: able to turn to any job, they are “pliant like bamboo”.

Alas, in a story that is as old as the sea, those who are adept afloat all too readily succumb to temptation ashore. Mr Ramirez’s current campaign is against “ambulance chasers”—lawyers and other unscrupulous operators who tempt seafarers into launching spurious injury claims against ship operators and then pocket the bulk of the damages. That, Mr Ramirez says, risks tarring all Filipino mariners and helps explain a fall in deployed seamen, from 443,000 in 2016.

And then there are the more visceral temptations of port. Too many a mariner has murmured the parting words “Look for me in Luneta” as he has risen from the pillow to catch his departing ship in, say, Rio de Janeiro. Some women take him at his word, flying to Manila and desperately searching the pavement. Infidelities also come to light on Facebook. Staff at the Luneta Seafarers Centre say that fights outside between wives and mistresses are a regular occurrence. The men who have caused the discord, naturally, hide at sea.

It is there that Filipinos’ qualities shine. Going to sea is all about hardship, sacrifice and boredom—“ssdd”, or same shit, different day, as Filipino sailors say. An ever-present problem is shipowners vanishing behind brass plates and leaving crews stranded and unpaid. And now others are competing for the same jobs, among them eastern Europeans, Bangladeshis and Chinese. Some coming to Luneta every day to look for work have not had a voyage since August.

For all the solitude and hardship, seafaring in the Philippines is a family enterprise. Youngsters’ dreams are nourished by seafaring tales told by relatives or neighbours. Families put up the money for cadets’ training. Connections or, better still, relatives in the manning agencies and unions are crucial. Providing for loved ones is part of the seafaring dream—sending home money to build houses, invest in farms, set up small businesses or send children to school.

Of the 10m Filipinos working overseas (a tenth of the country’s population), seafarers are at the top of the pile, remitting over $6bn a year, or a fifth of the total. Nearly all mariners come from the Visayas, in the central part of the archipelago, or—as with Mr Ramirez and many of the cadets who dorm in ufs’s offices—from Mindanao in the south.

They represent a potent force. Every mariner supports numbers ashore. So it should come as no surprise that a political party, Angkla (“anchor”), with a member in Congress, is aimed at seamen. On February 12th, the first day of campaigning for a general election in May, Angkla politicians were out in force with loudspeakers on the Luneta pavement. “The Filipino seafarer”, as one politician puts it, “is the economic powerhouse of the rural areas of this country.” One of Angkla’s aims is to get the Maritime Industry Authority, a government agency, to set up regional branches so that seafarers do not have to travel all the way up to the capital to renew their seaman’s passbook. Help the chief breadwinner, and whole districts will love you.

-Dominic Ziegler “Banyan” columnist

The Economist

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