Changing tides and still waters

By: Elijah Jose C. Barrios - @inquirerdotnet - Columnist/Philippine Daily Inquirer | September 16,2022 - 09:13 AM

There are two months in a year when I feel that what I do matters to the world: June and September.

June is when we observe the International Day of Seafarers. And September is when the Philippines celebrates National Seafarers’ Day and Maritime Week.

I started very young in seafaring. I was only 18. I remember the excitement and anxiety rolled into one when I arrived in New Zealand, my first joining country. To some, it may sound posh. But to me, it was the initial upward motion of this roller coaster ride before it dropped and shook my senses.

I’m nearing my first decade as a seafarer. There is a certain pride in my heart that I belong to the 21st-century experience in shipping. This is because for the past 10 years, I have witnessed remarkable progress in the industry.

When I was 19, I saw how we transitioned from using paper navigational charts to electronic charts. I no longer had to plot our positions using two triangle rulers and a pencil.

When I was 20, I saw how we let go of business cards and moved to the modern experience of mobile data. I no longer had to look for pay phones or go to seaman centers to call from abroad.

When I was 23, I boarded my first vessel equipped with Wi-Fi. I no longer had to wait for weeks before I could be reconnected to the online world.

And now that I am 27, and with a catalyst that is the pandemic, I saw how the industry quickly responded to the demands of time.

Audits and inspections are now being done online. Many port formalities are now paperless and digital. QR codes are now everywhere. Updating and troubleshooting electronic equipment can now be done remotely. And the short five years validity of seafarers’ certificates can now miraculously be extended.

But the 21st-century experience in shipping is not all about progress. In my first 10 years in the industry, I have also seen incomprehensible stagnations.

To date, women only comprise 1.28 percent of seafarers’ global count. The industry remains unattractive to females with some shipping companies’ absence or lack of protection against discrimination and harassment.

Misogyny, bigotry, and bullying are still being served at the breakfast table.

Mental health problems and HIV-AIDS among seafarers still draw more stigma than awareness and support.

Labor laws are still being violated by the rampant altering of rest and work hours of seafarers. Worse, it is being tolerated in the fear that the ship will be detained if the actual numbers are reported.

Filipino seafarers still protest on the issue of exploitation by the Maritime Industry Authority and training centers. Most recent of which is the reimposition of the expensive and time-consuming management level course.

There is still no progress in the national legislation in terms of seafarers’ welfare and protection. This is despite the fact that we have a representation in Congress through the Marino party list. Their first term in office has not brought any significant change in our legislation. And the Magna Carta for Seafarers has not yet been passed into law.

And even with a shortfall in required officers on board international vessels, some shipping companies still have glass ceilings built on gender and racial discrimination that prevent women and Filipino seafarers from taking management positions on board ships.

True enough, one decade is both a short and long time to be in the maritime industry. It is short enough to catch up with the changes and long enough to see the challenges.

Despite the fact that we are still the No. 1 global supplier of merchant mariners, I cannot say that every day it feels good to be a Filipino seafarer. There are days when I feel that we do not account for something.

I feel it every time a female cadet does not get a job. I feel it every time I allow my rest and work hours to be altered. I feel it every time I cannot speak of my mental health. I feel it every time I am reminded that my promotion may not happen soon because I am Asian. And I feel it most when I am not seen by the government—not in the State of the Nation Address, not in its programs, nor in Congress.

As we celebrate the Filipino maritime community this September, may we raise our wine glasses with one hand and our fists with the other. Let us call to action those in power, our national and global maritime leaders, to provide for a fairer and more humane treatment to us, maritime professionals.

Because despite the ups and downs of this roller coaster ride that is seafaring, despite its changing tides and still waters, what will always keep it moving forward is the heroism, industry, and sacrifices of every Filipino seafarer.

And I may not always feel good about ourselves and how we are treated, but I will always choose to be proud of what we do because what we do moves the world.


Elijah Jose C. Barrios, 27, is an Ilonggo navigational officer and writer. He is the host and producer of Inside Seafaring podcast.

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