Repatriated Filipino seafarers left high and dry amid pandemic

By Sara Gomez Armas.

Manila, May 7 (efe-epa).- After working for 17 years as a cruise ship crew member, Filipino Jan Deleon faces an uncertain future with the global tourism industry paralyzed indefinitely due to the COVID-19 crisis.

Deleon is currently in quarantine in Manila’s port aboard the same vessel he was supposed to work on until August.

“Maybe I will have a small barbecue take-out shop back home with my savings, until resuming cruise operations,” Deleon told EFE by phone from his cabin.

Deleon, 40, is one of 25,400 Philippine seafarers caught off guard out at sea by the pandemic and subsequently repatriated as the world closed ports and borders.

The Philippines is the country with the largest workforce on the seas with some 385,000 sailors – almost a quarter of the total of 1.6 million seafarers – and of these, around 120,000 work on cruise ships, a third of the world’s crew, according to data from the United Filipino Seafarers union.

Like most of his companions, Deleon was fired aboard the ship when Princess Cruises canceled its routes due to the pandemic, even though his contract was not set to expire until August.

After touring the Australian coast, he was to join one of the cruises sailing Alaska, as a waiter with a salary of about $800 a month – four times more than he would earn on land in his own country – as well as tips.

Before returning to his family, ahead of schedule and unemployed, he must complete the mandatory 14-day quarantine period on the Sun Princess, which is anchored in the port of Manila along with 12 other cruise ships that have arrived from Australia, Japan, Malaysia and Singapore, on which 4,179 crew are confined in the same situation.

“The government didn’t honor our quarantine procedure. We’ve been on the cruise without guests since March 19,” Deleon said.

His ship docked on Apr. 16 but nobody has entered or left the vessel since Mar. 19 after the last group of passengers disembarked in Australia.

The 230 Filipino crew members have undergone testing for COVID-19 and hope they receive results in time to disembark on May 9 as they have been promised.

“I’m worried because I’ve heard that I will put under quarantine again back home, according local government regulations. I have to cover the expenses there,” Deleon added. While aboard the vessel, his expenses are covered by Princess Cruises.

Despite numerous delays that have caused anger amongst the sailors, some 600 of them have completed their quarantine on vessels anchored in Philippine ports and have returned to their homes – mostly to Visayas and Mindanao islands in central and southern Philippines – after testing negative, Coast Guard commander Admiral Joel Garcia told EFE.

The pandemic has dealt a severe blow to the Philippines’ maritime industry, which no longer enjoys the strength it did a few decades ago, but is still an important source of employment for thousands of Filipinos working in the sector, who inject up to $6 billion into the economy annually, accounting for 20 percent of the total remittances.

“It will really have a big impact. So many Filipino seafarers will suffer. If this continues, I’d guess 70 percent might be out of work,” said United Filipino Seafarers president Nelson Ramirez.

The severe oil crisis in the 1970s made seafarers from Europe, North America and Japan more expensive for an industry that veered to Southeast Asia and found cheap, efficient and English-speaking labor in the Philippines.

“We are the best seafarers in the world. We are cheerful, resourceful and hard workers. We have the sea in the blood,” said Ramirez, who founded the union 25 years ago to improve the working conditions of the Filipinos who now face competition from crew hailing from China, Vietnam, Indonesia, India and Eastern Europe who are willing to work on lower salaries.

“Indonesians and Indians, they have a bad reputation. They are lazy. Vietnamese are fine, but they don’t speak good English,” he added.

Merchant ships, which move 80 percent of the global trade, have seen a 20 percent drop in the placement of Filipinos in the last three years, in parallel with the economic rise of China, which increasingly has more shipping companies that employ their compatriots, and about to take first place in that industry.

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