Seafaring work is uncertain, demanding and, at times, dangerous. Many shipowners rely on the free movement of crew members to keep their ships operating. According to the International Chamber of Shipping Association (ICS), there are 1.2 million seafarers at any given time. This means that, under normal circumstances, shipowners are rotating approximately 100,000 crew workers each month globally.
Crew rotation has always been a complex operation. At ports around the world, sailors routinely embark on and disembark from ships for these crew changes. These transnational workers spend between three and nine months at sea, oftentimes logging 12-hour days, six days a week. Breaks on land are occasional while containers and goods are loaded or unloaded.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, however, widespread travel restrictions have made such crew changes difficult, if not impossible.
At risk is the flow of goods like food, medicine, and energy via commercial shipping routes, which accounts for about 80 percent of global trade, according to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development. On a typical day, there are 50,000 vessels at sea, making a total of four million ports of call annually. Meanwhile, offshore platforms deliver one third of the world’s oil and gas, contributing to the global dependence on oceanic supply chains.
The shipping industry has urged governments to classify seafarers as ‘key workers’, and has called for special arrangements for seafarers, similar to those granted to healthcare workers. This would provide seafarers more freedom of movement, but even if a ship reaches an open port, crew members face barriers that impact their work. For example, ports in Canada have exempted ship crews from travel restrictions, but air travel back to their home countries is often unavailable. Migrant seafarers made to work internationally may have no means for repatriation to their home countries as they fall through the cracks in COVID-19 policy. On board vessels such as super tankers, massive container ships, and cruise ships, the spread of coronavirus is likened to a floating petri dish.
The racialized dimension of seafaring work
The plight of migrant seafaring workers in the leisure cruise industry came into international focus when the Diamond Princess made headlines last March. During the quarantine period While it was docked at Port of Yokohama, Japan for an extended quarantine period, the ship’s crew—equipped with limited protective gear—continued to work, serving meals, washing laundry, and carrying out requests that passengers posted on their cabin doors. Many shared cramped quarters with their crewmates who showed COVID-19 symptoms and tested positive.
On the quarantined Diamond Princess, 445 out of the 1100 crew members were from the Philippines. These migrant workers were also the last ones allowed to leave the ship, days after the two-week quarantine period.
Close to one-third of the world’s seafarers are from the Philippines, making up significant portions, if not majorities, of the crews of ocean-going vessels. For decades, the Philippines has been known as the “manning capital of the world”, supplying low-paid, low-ranking workers throughout the world’s oceans, though Filipino shipmasters are still uncommon.
The exploitation of seafaring workers from the Philippines has its roots in centuries of colonialism, where indentured labourers were made to work on Spanish vessels. Galleons serving the Spanish Empire plied between Manila and Acapulco during the height of the silver trade, from the mid-sixteenth century until the Mexican War of Independence in 1815. The Spanish colonial period also brought the first Asian settlers to the Americas from the Philippine colony. During the early 1900s, Filipino seasonal migrant workers crewed Canadian and American whaling vessels along the coasts of Alaska and British Columbia.
During the post-Second World War period, oil prices tripled, and shipping lines could no longer afford the wages that European seafarers demanded. Filipino seamen—most of them male workers—proliferated globally through the Philippine labour export policy, implemented during the Ferdinand Marcos dictatorship.
Like other Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs), a substantial portion of the wages of Filipino seamen are sent back into the Philippine economy through remittances. In 2019, sea-based Filipino migrant workers have sent home close to $7 billion USD which represents 23 percent of total estimated remittances to the Philippines. Their contributions prop up the country’s dilapidated social security and healthcare insurance systems, while holding up the global supply chain.
Under COVID-19, many of those seafarers have lost their jobs with the global economic collapse, or are stuck in foreign ports on their vessels under quarantine. Many repatriated seafarers cannot find suitable accommodations where mandatory self-quarantine would be observed and testing would be administered, advocates say. Quarantined seafarers around the world also face barriers in making contact with their families.
International labour regulations for seafarers do exist, but they are supposed to be enforced by flag states. In practice, shipowners circumvent labour laws using ‘flags of convenience’, registering their ships in a nation that they do not necessarily belong to avoid adherence to international treaties. Cruise ships have been known to sail as if they were their own sovereign states.
Despite these dire straits, the pandemic has offered paramount, real-time lessons for the labour behind international trade and tourism. Workers deemed disposable steer the world’s flow of wealth, and Filipino overrepresentation in this sector is not accidental.
As quarantines disrupt the flow of goods, and sea workers remain idle or furloughed, they may come to realize that they have the power to steer away from racially stratified capitalism. Any rightward shift that is anchored in the continuation of these unequal relations is dead in the water. Navigating an alternative imaginary for this struggle based on the organization of oceangoing labour could have ripple effects on land-based economies—those which have always been dependent on the seas.
Ysh Cabana is a writer and community organizer living in Toronto. He is also a member of BAYAN-Canada, alliance of progressive Filipino groups.