The mounting threat posed by Somali pirates is causing waves in many seafaring nations, but there has been little effect in the Philippines, which supplies the world up to 40 percent of its sailors.
Late last week, Somali pirates seized a fully laden Saudi supertanker, the biggest vessel ever hijacked, with a cargo of oil worth more than $100 million. Of the 25 crew on board, 18 were Filipinos.
Indeed, Filipinos make up 127 of the 243 sailors being held captive by Somali pirates, but there has been no let-up in recruitment at what has come to be known as Seafarers’ Park in Manila, the capital.
“If they will offer to pay me twice or thrice my salary, I’ll take the risks,” said a deck officer, giving only his call sign “Peanut Louie”, while filling up a recruitment form.
About 800 to 1,000 seafarers gather every day at this corner of a sprawling public park on Manila Bay to look for available jobs offered by some 100 shipping and manning agencies.
The increasingly brazen attacks by pirates off Africa’s east coast were common knowledge among the seafarers, but there was no holding back on their eagerness to get back to sea.
Many were anxious to nail down jobs since they fear the mounting global financial crisis will begin to bite next year.
“The chances of getting caught by Somali pirates could be much slimmer nowadays because of the security measures in place. Of course, I have some fears and anxieties, but I’ll take any job now because they might be hard to come by next year,” the deck officer said.
About 350,000 Filipinos work on the high seas, out of a total of 800,000 seafarers around the world.
Captain Wilfredo Villanueva, fleet manager of Jubar Shipping which recruits deck and marine officers for Japanese tankers and bulk carriers, said there could be as many as 20,000 jobs lost next year due to the global economic slowdown.
“This is no joke,” Villanueva told Reuters. “We’re looking at a shrinking market for seafarers so many Filipinos are willing to take the risk.”
“The risk of losing their jobs is grimmer than facing Somali gunmen.”
Villanueva said the recession in Europe, Japan and North America would mean diminished movements of goods, including crude oil and natural gas.
About 90 percent of tankers, carriers and general cargo vessels, which are most vulnerable to a crisis, have Filipinos on their crews.
Crescente Relacion, an official at the foreign ministry, said the government was helpless in dealing with the piracy problem, leaving it up to shipping companies to work for the release of the captive Filipino seafarers.
“The government is not taking part in any negotiations,” he told reporters, adding other government agencies dealing with overseas workers have no way of monitoring movements of Filipino seafarers.
Apart from insisting shipping companies give double pay and allowances to seafarers passing through dangerous waters near Somalia and coordinating the transit of vessels with the U.S. Navy and other foreign navies operating in the area, the Philippines could do little.
“We have not taken a position on the matter of putting a ban on seafarers going there,” Eduardo Ermita, executive secretary, told reporters.
It’s also not clear if any such ban would have much effect. The Philippines currently bans nationals from working in Iraq but thousands do anyway, mostly in U.S. military bases.