MANILA, Philippines—Filipino seafarers are the most in demand in the world, accounting for 30 percent of about 1.2 million seamen abroad—from cruise liners to oil rigs. Dubbed “crewing capital of the world,” the Philippines has emerged as the world’s biggest supplier of international ship crew.
International manning principals have called Filipino seamen their “preferred choice” because of their outstanding qualities: Technical knowledge, flexibility, reliability, trustworthiness, hard work, and their command of the English language.
During the first quarter of 2011 seafarers have contributed $627.3 million to Philippine coffers. Last year, they brought $3.8 billion in remittances.
With a growing global requirement projected to grow at 50 percent in the next 10 years, and an aging international pool to boot, career prospects for Filipino maritime professionals are certainly bright.
With a lucrative seafaring industry it has then become imperative for maritime professionals to unite to protect their social, legal, moral rights both on the domestic and international fronts.
For 50 years, the late master mariner Gregorio S. Oca fought for seafarers’ protection through the Associated Marine Officers’ Union of the Philippines (AMOSUP), which he established in 1960. The largest organization binding maritime professionals, AMOSUP offers a wide spectrum of programs that include maritime education training, family dental and hospitalization, welfare and mutual benefit plans, and housing.
Earlier, his brother, labor leader Roberto S. Oca Jr., formed the Philippine Transport General Workers Organization (PTGWO) in 1951. By 1960, Gregorio, concerned with the plight of the licensed crew of several shipping lines, had constituted AMOSUP, with PTGWO as mother organization.
Today, Gregorio’s life’s work is being continued by his daughter Marissa, the current administrator of AMOSUP’s community development programs. Marissa’s early exposure to her father’s deeds planted the seeds in her young mind. Providing support are her brothers Conrado, president of AMOSUP, and Pedro Miguel, president of NAESS Philippines Incorporated.
“My exposure with AMOSUP began in high school when my father asked me to help out in AMOSUP’s 50-bed hospital, the Roberto S. Oca Worker’s Clinic which serviced seafarers and dock workers and their families,” recounts Marissa.
The said hospital would later become the 100-bed Seamen’s Hospital in Intramuros, Manila. This was followed by other hospital openings in the provinces: Cebu in 1997, Iloilo in 2005, and the Gig Oca Robles Seamen’s Foundation Hospital in Davao in 2008.
Fully immersed in hospital work after earning her economics degree from the University of California in Sta. Barbara, Marissa later enrolled at the University of the Philippines for a master’s degree in hospital administration.
In the report “The Human Cost of Somali Piracy,” it was underscored that despite the many gains achieved by seafarers, problems continue to escalate globally as mariners are being subjected to increasing violence at sea including physical and psychological abuse—even torture.
Published by the Oceans Beyond Piracy, an organization dedicated to achieving a long-term, sustainable solution to piracy, the report stated that in 2010 alone, more than 4,000 seafarers were attacked—some vessels and crew multiple times.
“And this is a very critical issue that needs to be addressed because we have a lot of Filipino seafarers out there whose lives are on the line. Certainly there is a need to impose additional safety measures. In extreme cases they suffer from significant psychological or physical abuse; worse, torture,” reveals Marissa.
In fact, as of May, 2011, there were 79 Filipino seafarers on board nine vessels still in captivity.
To address this escalating problem, the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA) last year imposed an additional requirement for departing seafarers to undergo a one-day defense training against sea pirates before boarding foreign sea vessels.
For its part, AMOSUP provides psychosocial counseling and support services to seafarers and families who were victims of abduction.
“This is a most difficult ordeal not only for seafarers but also for their next-of-kins who go through tough psychological torment. Our community development programs include activities that promote mental and psychological well-being of seafarers’ families,” she explains.
Making something out of a loss
Marissa is one who always puts the family first ahead of anyone else, be it for the seafarers that she deals with regularly, and more so with herself.
When she lost her 17-year old son Ambrosio Gregorio “Gig” Oca Robles IV after a tragic accident, Marissa’s deep and joyful appreciation for her departed son became the wellspring of many inspired actions.
Among them is a reading advocacy for the families of seafarers. “I would always read to my children at bedtime every night. When they grew, I found myself soliciting books for the library that supported a school in the Seamen’s Village, which my father founded. After Gig passed on, this simple desire to promote reading literacy would transform into an advocacy,” Marissa explains. She also spearheaded the creation of the Gig and Amazing Sampaguita Foundation, Inc., (GASFI).
“At any one time, when there are at least 230,000 Filipino seafarers on ships worldwide, there are one million children with their family members left at home. It is in the context of the one-parent family or the distant parent setup that we wish to advocate reading as bonding time at seafarer families’ homes,” explains Marissa.
GASFI has so far printed 10 children’s books targeted for seafarer families; and given away for free. The stories were culled from works written by authors who won in a story-writing contest GASFI launched last year.
Underscoring the need to strengthen the bond between seafarers and family members amid difficult issues such as coping with loneliness, homesickness and “burn-out,” Marissa organized the 1st International Seafarer Family Convention (ISFC) 2011 at the Philippine International Convention Center (PICC), Pasay City.
With theme “The Bonds of Families, the Success of the World,” the two-day conference and exhibit was the first in the industry, and became the biggest gathering of maritime industry professionals and stakeholders.
“There are many issues being dealt by seafarer families left behind by parents who have to be away for long periods of time. We should all be aware that not only the family, but also the government, ship owners, employers, NGOs, and many others have a stake in keeping the families of seafarers together,” explains Marissa.
The Department of Labor and Employment (DoLE), through the support of local government units, has created more seafarers’ help desks in the different regions to allow services to become more accessible. It has also continued to implement schemes for a rationalized distribution of scholarship slots for the deserving children of seafarers throughout the country, and increase the number of family welfare officers and counselors, who are responsible for conducting regular family visitations.