1. On behalf of the OM, I would like to share first and foremost our church’s joy in giving as a chance to continually take part in activities such as this that bear strategic significance for the advancement of the rights and welfare of our Filipino seafarers even as I greet all the Filipino seafarers and members of their families and seafarer-advocates who are joining with us in this celebration either via zoom and Facebook.

2. It was not long ago when you successfully organized the National Seafarers Day in the Philippines with the banner theme: “Unite and Organize the Seafarers and Families”. I was not personally present then as it was only last October that I officially “signed-in” and came “aboard” so to speak as Port Chaplain based here in Hamburg Germany but I heard that from then on you convenors of the said event have grown to become a vibrant “network” that genuinely care for seafarers and for seafarer’s families. That is why I feel very excited and privileged to speak before you today on the occasion of the historic launching of SEANetwork, which I believe could make a big difference in helping the plight of our often abused, exploited, and “abandoned” seafarers.  

3. Our people’s experience during this Pandemic has once again hinted to us the fact that our government care so much less for our workers including our seafarers. I was made aware how indifferent and slow to react our DFA and OWWA were in responding to the calls of our seafarers in distress as in the case of the eleven (11) seafarers stranded for more than a year inside the ship Ocean Star 86 docked at Dongshan’s port in China. Like other stranded seafarers all over the world, stranded seafarers in Uruguay and Chile and elsewhere have had to endure many days of hunger and lack of communication facilities while waiting for repatriation not to mention the discomfort and inconvenience that they experienced at the domestic airports and quarantine facilities upon arrival in the country. If not for this group’s initiatives as well as pressure, the Philippine government might have done much less. It is lamentable that a government that poses itself to wield much authority was not able to pressure shipping companies involved to take full responsibility to do immediate, intensive, and sustained search and rescue operations to find the missing seafarers of Gulf Livestock off Japan Coast – which might have somehow given some comfort and relief to the bereaved families.

4. Here in Europe particularly here in Germany we have heard and witnessed how our seafarers who were infected with COVID 19, those who were suspected and quarantined, those whose wages were significantly and unjustly reduced, those whose contracts had lapsed but cannot go home received zero to very meager assistance and were left to rely on the generosity of German institutions for support and were powerless to exert their rights before their respective shipping companies and manning agencies. We have been told here that a significant number of our seafarers especially in cruise ships have lost their jobs and are now at home struggling individually without government help to find ways and means to pay for their bills and provide the need of their families. Does our government realize the magnitude of the problems faced by our seafarers today? Do they bother to fully know their struggles and hardships? Does our government genuinely care for them? I doubt it.

5. As far as I know, even before this COVID crises came into the picture, many, if not most of the basic problems of our seafarers were not being well-responded to by previous governments until the present one. Substandard maritime training, exploitation of fresh maritime student graduates through servitude as utility personnel by manning agencies, whose powers are unchecked and marred with other unconscionable abuses, exorbitant pre-sign-in medical fees, unnecessary and expensive trainings for would-be officers, unofficial but widespread “blacklisting” of seafarers who complain and assert their rights, arduous process in claims application after accidents and illness onboard, lack of benefits and job insecurity due to contractual work arrangements, POEA contracts which sets salaries that are way below international standards, lower salaries compared to European counterparts, disadvantaged seafarers in pursuing claims from shipping companies. These are but some of the basic and lingering “ills” of seafaring in the country. Up until now, most of the Philippine maritime laws like the Ambulance Chasing law and other maritime policies and regulations like those stipulated in the standard POEA-contracts for seafarers are one-sided: they are designed to protect the interests of the shipping companies at the expense of the welfare and well-being of Filipino seafarer even as they contribute billions of pesos of remittances to keep our economy afloat. Truth is, like other land-based OFWs, our seafarers, who work and live in floating prisons and who risk their lives in perilous seas, are being treated as mere cheap exports within the framework of the neo-liberal globalized labor market.

6. It is in this context that the would-be passing of HB 6588 into law finds great significance and urgency. I praise the Makabayan Bloc in coming-up with a Magna Carta that is genuinely pro-seafarer. That seafarers be considered regular and not merely contractual, that all illnesses or accidents on-board be considered work-related, that fishers be considered seafarers as stated in HB 6588 among others are proposals which are necessary measures to correct certain exploitative policies and unfair working conditions experienced by our seafarers and fishers –  to make their work more humane and just. This course that HB 6588 that would like to venture into is perfectly in line with the Iglesia Filipina Independiente’s mission and ministry for overseas Filipino workers including seafarers.

7. In his speech during the National Seafarer’s Day celebration, Obispo Maximo Rhee Timbang said:

“We in the IFI recognize the enormity of the employment and economic problem that we face in this country and the magnitude of numbers of Filipinos that leaves our country to seek employment overseas. Before the pandemic has struck, reportedly there were six thousand Filipino workers who left every day for work abroad either for sea-based or land-based employment. Cognizant of its heritage and charism, the IFI intends to offer its ministry to these migrant workers wherever they are in the globe.”

8. It is therefore our great joy that the “convenors”, which earlier acted as working group and coordinating committee in initiating activities for our seafarers has grown into what is now called SEANETWORK. We in the IFI are delighted to have been onboard this journey of SEANETWORK since day 1 through the Obispado Maximo, through the Mission to Seafarers-Family Network Philippines, and through the individual clergy of the IFI working in various major ports of the world ministering as port chaplains in partnership with the Mission to Seafarers with Headquarter in London, United Kingdom and through the Seafarers Ministry of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Northern Germany in Hamburg and Rostock, Germany. While one big media network in the Philippines was shut down not long ago, today, on this historic day, we witness the birth of a new network – a network of organizations and agencies committed genuinely in pursuing the rights and welfare of the seafarers. We look forward then to a closer collaboration with the Migrante International, with Asia-Pacific Mission to Migrant Workers, with Mission to Seafarers, with International Seafarers Action Center, and with many other organizations and agencies involved in this network. “Together we are stronger” as the International Christian Maritime Association would insist. The creation of SEANetwork is certainly a very positive and significant step not only towards enhancement of our services and the strengthening of our advocacy for our Filipino seafarers but also towards empowering them and their families to unite and organize to help change the exploitative structures and systems that plague them and the broader Philippine society.

9. Corollary to this, may the conduct of this online forum on HB 6588 deepen our understanding and commitment for us to exert more effort to push for its eventual enactment. Again, it is our great privilege to be part of this historic twin-events. May the liberating God of history work among us and through us today and beyond, assured of his blessing and protection as we continue to do his holy will for the least. Keep safe and be healthy in this difficult time of pandemic. An inspiring and fulfilling day for all of us.

Thanks to the Revd June Mark Yañez, Deuctshe Seemmansmission Rostock, Germany

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