Who can deny the call of the sea? Even in modern times, many of us have romanticized images of seafarershard working people, certainly; but with the smell of salt all around, travel to exotic ports, and hearty meals and good camaraderie, what could be a more interesting job?
No population knows the inaccuracy of this portrayal of seafaring life more than Filipinos. Nearly 30 percent of the worldwide sea labor force come from the Asian archipelago.
The romantic image of the sea is belied by accounts from more than 100 Filipino workers interviewed by Steven McKay, assistant professor of sociology and member of the Urban Studies faculty at UWM.
McKay says many workers describe the ships as prisons. They see the same 15 to 20 people every day for 10 months, he says. Theyre on call all the time, and if theres an emergency, they may work 20 hours straight. Those exciting ports of call? Forget itin many countries, the ships dock far away from the city, and the products are trucked to another location. The workers rarely leave the ship.
An estimated 217,000 Filipino seafarers work the cruise liners and container ships that dot the globe. According to the 2003 Annual Report of the Philippines Overseas Employment Administration the number of seafarers deployed swelled by 3.07% to 216,031or an average daily deployment of 600 seamenfrom 209,593 in the previous year.
McKay is completing a project on Filipino seafarers as a fellow at the UWM Center for 21st Century Studies. He writes: Seafarers, despite being classified by the Philippine state as migrant workers, are at best suspended migrants: away from home but lacking a host destination or local work-place, spending their working lives traversing nation-less oceans.
McKay says a common explanation for why Filipinos dominate international crewing is that they are simply born to sail.
Recruiters and seafarers themselves often claimed that Filipinos, as inhabitants of an archipelago, were just natural sailors. McKay says. But clearly its a lot more complicated. For example, when I asked then why there werent more Indonesian seafarers, since that country has more than double the number of islands14,000than the Philippines, they had no reply.
McKay has found scattered accounts of Filipinos as forced laborers aboard Spanish Galleons beginning in the 16th century, as Manilamen on British merchant ships in the 18th century, and as deckhands on American trading vessels in the 19th century, but he was surprised to find that a comprehensive history of Filipino sailors doesnt exist.
McKay is telling the untold story behind the high concentration of Filipinos in the bowels of cargo and passenger ships. His research reveals that despite the long history, more recent events provide clues to the nations dominance.
The beginning of the story can be traced to the United States colonization of the Philippines after the Spanish-American War in 1898.
The Navy gradually recruited fewer Filipinos, and eventually eliminated the program in 1992 after the Philippine government refused to renew the agreement allowing permanent U.S. military bases in the Philippines. Many Filipinos then turned to the international merchant marines.
Filipino seafarers did not have a significant presence in international shipping until they exploded on the scene in the 1970s, McKay writes. Rather than some natural affinity with the sea, the primary reasons Filipinos have developed a significant niche stem from structural changes in the shipping industry in the 1960s that spurred a strong labor demand for cheaper crews, and from American colonialism that created the preconditions for an abundant and vocationally-trained labor supply.
But American colonial institutions proved a double-edged sword. They helped usher Filipinos onto a global stage, yet at the same time reinforced racial hierarchies and slotted them only into the bottom of the labor market.
They had jobs, but they were dangerous ones. From November 1998 to 2001, the International Transport Workers Federation recorded 367 casualties among Filipino seafarers, 66 percent of whom fell ill or met accidents, with 34 percent dying as a result of sunken ships, explosions and other mishaps. According to another report, the number of worldwide reported incidents of piracy went up from 370 in 2002 to 445 in 2003.
Perhaps the biggest reason Filipinos are so prominent in the seafaring industry is the promotional efforts by the Philippine government itself, which benefits from these workers contribution to the national economy. Close to 10 percent of the populationmore than 8 million Filipinoslive outside of the islands and work in a variety of different fields, including nursing, high tech, construction, entertainment, and domestic services.
Many countries, including El Salvador, Mexico and the Dominican Republic, promote their workers, but the Philippines approach is the most aggressive, McKay says. One government marketing brochure boasts: Filipinos possess a natural affinity with the sea. As early as 320 A.D. they had been known . . . for their exceptional prowess as sailors . . . . It was during the exciting days of the Galleon Trade, when the world was heady with the prospects of spice and gold trading that the Filipino sailor became an important man aboard any ship. Proof of that popularity was the hundreds of Filipinos hired as ratings during that period.
But of these thousands of seafarers, less than ten percent are senior officers. The lack of mobility is due in large part, McKay says, to the continued racialized division of labor.
McKays research uncovers the many fronts on which the Philippine government and the seafarers themselves battle to maintain their niche and protect it from outsiders.
The convenient erasure of the forced labor regime, the brutal, often deadly conditions aboard the Galleons, and the anachronistic reference to Filipino ratings all contribute to a sanitized, power-obscuring vision of Filipino seafarer history that provides a seemingly continuous link between past and present, McKay writes.
Building closure around secondary jobs at the bottom of the labor market entails crafting a national character that also maps onto the characteristics necessary for the occupational nichesubservience and willingness to work. Perpetuating the niche and defending it from other groups then calls for a naturalizing and racializing of these characteristics as innately Filipino.
In addition, McKay reports, the state also operates on the ideological front, promoting overseas workers as Bagong Bayani or new heroes of the nation. It recognizes but not necessarily relieves the suffering of overseas workers and draws attention to their contributions to the states domestic economic development. A seafarer can make almost $12,000 per year, about four times the average mainland household income.
In order to maintain their presence, Filipinosand their national government that relies on their dollar remittanceshave tended to reinforce racialized categories and stereotypes used in the hiring process in order to set themselves apart in the labor market, he writes. Although their attractiveness to ship owners stemmed largely from their lower cost, English-language abilities and American-based training, their incorporation into the industry has been constructed and justified along racial lines.
Theres no other place like a ship. Its the site of both traveling and dwellinga moving space between places, says McKay, who teaches courses in multiculturalism, the sociology of work, political sociology and globalization. Boundaries are both symbolic and social and are intimately related. I wanted to find out how the seafarers make distinctions in terms of national, occupational and gender identity, especially on board. How are social hierarchies and stratifications reproduced on the ship? How do people categorize one another? The answers he found were overwhelmingly based on nationality and race.
Many of the seafarers McKay talked to reinforce the stereotypes themselves. Respondents often directly compared themselves with other nationalities, reserving the most virulent comments for nationalities with whom they compete most directly. One man noted, The Koreans are not good; theyre too jealous. They do not promote the Filipinos because they dont want us to be superior in the ship because they are jealous of our hard work and good performance.
On board, the officers (who are often white) are separated from the crew, given their own place to eat and enjoy recreation. Theres little interaction with the crew, who watch videos, drink and have little else to do when theyre not working. Instead of a global melting pot, national differences are intensified.
Despite the hardships on the seas, the rise of Filipinos into crewing since the 1970s has been phenomenal. According to government records, about 2,000 Filipino seafarers served on foreign ships a year in the 1960s, rising to 23,534 in 1975. By 1980, there were more than 57,000 Filipinos aboard some 4,000 foreign ships, and now more than 200,000 seafarers work abroad.
McKays interviews indicate that seafarers seek to defend their niche from incursion, often buying into the goals of the state project. Other workers criticize the Philippine state for its often-vacuous claims about empowerment and heroism. Some choose a legal route to enforce laws, and unions are quite active.
But it would take massive cultural and regulatory changes to improve conditions and change the rigid social hierarchies, McKay says.
Ultimately, he writes, the key is to consider what conditions may lead away from increased social exclusion and possibly toward producing new spaces for cross-class and/or cross-national solidarity.
McKay will continue to investigate the global labor market this summer as a visiting researcher at the University of Cardiff in Wales, UK. He is also the author of an upcoming book, Satanic Mills or Silicon Islands? The Politics of High Tech Production in the Philippines, which deals with treatment of Filipino electronics workers near the capital, Manila.