The drive to protect the rights and welfare of seafarers around the world turns on international cooperation, and earlier this year SRI and the government of the Philippines took an important step forward in securing the wellbeing of Filipino seafarers around the world when a Memorandum of Agreement (MoA) was signed by Deirdre Fitzpatrick, Executive Director of SRI, and Silvestre H. Bello III, SRI, Secretary of the Department of Labor and Employment of the Philippines (DOLE).
This collaboration began however, back in 2018, when SRI and DOLE began working together on a project aimed at raising awareness of the IMO Fair Treatment Guidelines amongst stakeholders and role players, and exploring how the region could develop resources, knowledge and expertise in relation to the Guidelines. This culminated in the first ever Manila Statement on the Fair Treatment of Seafarers, where senior government representatives from more than 10 countries in the Asia made a commitment to develop further education, training and personal development in the industry.
The new MoA
Deirdre Fitzpatrick explains: “In practical terms, this MOA means that SRI will provide legal and educational assistance to DOLE and to Filipino seafarers – with a focus on ensuring the fair treatment of Filipino seafarers in other countries.
“All who work in the maritime industry recognise the strategic position of the Philippines as a major maritime power and the major supplier of seafarers to the international maritime fleet. The partnership recognises their importance, and as such, the need to promote their safety and wellbeing, and ensure that they are offered the protections of the law.”
Secretary Bello is clear as to the importance of Filipino seafarers to the industry. Our seafarers are number one, he explains. “Whenever we send our seafarers to any part of the world their protection and the respect of their rights are our primary concern.
“We are proud of our seafarers not only for their skills but especially for their perseverance, their dedication and hard work. We must all continue to work together to raise awareness of the importance of fair treatment for our seafarers.
“We believe that our department’s partnership with SRI will certainly help us to further our efforts in providing better services to our Filipino seafarers, and the legal and educational assistance to be extended by SRI will certainly go a long, long way in uplifting working conditions.”
“>At the event, Stephen Cotton, Director of SRI and General Secretary of the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) referred to the ITF’s proud historical relationship with the Philippines and the democratic unions that are members and in particular the fact that the Associated Marine Officers and Seamen’s Union of the Philippines (AMOSUP) which is the biggest seafarers’ union in the world is very close both to providing services for seafarers and the industry and works extremely well with the Administration.
He says: “I think it is a particularly pertinent time for signing this Agreement. Throughout COVID it became very clear to the world’s society that seafarers and the challenges they face in joining vessels and leaving vessels was right at the cutting edge of how our societies survived the pandemic. It is critical that we continue to campaign for the rights, not just of seafarers, but all transport workers who exist in the vital lifelines… So we’re very pleased that this partnership is taking place at the core of the work … making sure the world appreciates what it is to be a seafarer in 2022 and what it will be in 2050”.
Collaboration as a solution
SRI’s work across the industry with shipowners, seafarer representatives, judges, and lawyers has demonstrated that whatever the problems are, collaboration is always the solution. “There are always new problems around the corner for all of us,” explains Deirdre, “and I think setting up the relationships to deal with those problems – whatever they are – will help us find better solutions for the future.”
Stephen Cotton agrees. “It’s critical that we work together, and if there’s one thing that we learnt throughout COVID, it’s that our societies need more collaboration and cooperation. It isn’t easy to make sure that the world’s supply chains continue to move, and we know how hard it was for the world’s seafarers when their families were sick at home or they couldn’t leave or join vessels.
“Seafarers now more than ever deserve society’s respect,” he says. “And the Philippines is a very proud maritime nation with a long, long history. It is vital that the work that SRI does, and that we do, and what we do in collaboration ensures that when you show up as a migrant worker anywhere in the world you have the minimum standards to make sure you’re protected, and you understand what the rules are and that you’re respected in your role.”
Katie Higginbottom, Head of ITF Seafarers Trust witnessed the signing. She says: “The primary focus of the Seafarers’ Trust is the welfare of seafarers and their families, and so we are delighted to see evidence of a further initiative to enhance cooperation in the interests of seafarers’ rights in the Philippines. It is my sincere hope that this will lead to significant improvements in recognition of their work and the protection of their rights and in securing the welfare and wellbeing of their families.”
Legal processes are not always enough
Painful experience has shown that international law is not always as effective as it should be, ensuring that there will always be a role for an organisation with the aims of SRI and a need for a coordinated and collaborative approach around the world. “I am a lawyer and the first thing lawyers admit is that the law does not always achieve what we want it to achieve,” says Deirdre. “In all my years working with seafarers I have been continually frustrated by the inability of the legal system to deliver the protections that the workers need – specifically in relation to seafarers. This was especially apparent during COVID when we saw challenges to the international legal framework, where it was not delivering the results we need.”
The work at the IMO and the work that the Philippines does at the ILO helps build that international framework, she says, “but then it’s a constant struggle to get it enforced properly and to deliver the results for the seafarers on the ground because of the multinational and multijurisdictional environment in which they work.”
Stephen sounds a note of warning however. “Of course it’s vital that we build strong relationships with governments, but also with organisations that put workers’ welfare at the top of the list. However, there has to be embedded mutual respect and the respect of international law and regulations.”
Originally, the work that SRI carried out in Manilla was focused on fair treatment for seafarers. However, the issue of capacity building is today very much at the forefront, especially when the fallout from COVID and the situation in Ukraine has highlighted some of the difficulties faced by seafarers in their daily lives.
“When I was in Manila four years ago the Secretary and I talked a lot about fair treatment of seafarers following maritime accidents and casualties,” explains Deirdre. “That was the start of the collaboration. This is wider now, and our relationship encompasses issues where we can help build capacity around the industry’s legal framework, and education framework. This is completely complementary to what the ITF, and other bodies are doing, and we see this as offering practical support to their efforts.”
“There is uncertainty in the industry – global challenges are making the industry less attractive and transformation in shipping means that seafarers are concerned about having the right skills for a greener and digitally connected future,” says Deirdre Fitzpatrick. “These issues are at the forefront for those of us working with seafarers, and the delivery of seafarers’ rights and seafarers’ welfare – as well as enhancing maritime education and training – is essential for the recruitment and retention of seafarers”.
The ITF has been working closely with both its affiliates, and other organisations such the International Chamber of Shipping and the United Nations Global Compact in an attempt to predict the role of the future seafarer as the industry moves to net zero carbon by 2050. “We are all working to make sure that what we would describe is a ‘just transition’ takes place, so that our current seafarers today are up-skilled,” explains Stephen Cotton.
The reality is that as we’ve come out of the COVID crisis we hit a war that has impacted on the situation for the world’s seafarers, he says. “But we still have to work closely together to understand what sort of skills seafarers will need to prepare for the new alternative fuels. This is a challenge for the industry as a whole.”