David Bacon Stories & Photographs
Filipino Sailors Challenge Ocean-Going Colonialism
by David Bacon

STOCKTON (12/25/96) - The actions of twelve Filipino sailors, aboard a high-tech chemical tanker in Stockton this fall, are reverberating on thousands of freighters cris-crossing the globe. In an era when only a handful of people operate giant ships with cargo valued in the millions, this small band of seamen have sounded a warning. They've challenged the system of shipboard colonialism which has taken over the world's huge shipping lines.

A rare event took place when their vessel, the Mundogas Europe, pulled up to the dock in the harbor of this central California city in September. The ship's Spanish officers called out a warning to their captain, yelling "carteles!" ("picketsigns, picketsigns!") A dozen Filipino deck officers and crewmen stood resolutely at the gangplank, and along the ship's railing, holding hand-lettered signs announcing "Crew on Strike for a New Contract," "Improper Treatment of Crew by Master," and "Danger, Toxic Fumes in Tank #2."

On the shore, seeing the sailors' actions, the longshoremen of two locals of the International Longshoremen's and Warehousemen's Union refused to hook up hoses to discharge the ships valuable and dangerous cargo of anhydrous ammonia.

For twenty-four hours, the huge tanker lay in port, paralyzed like a beached whale, as cables, phone calls and telexes flew back and forth between Stockton, Hong Kong, Manila and London. Finally, the London ship owners and their Manila labor contractor agreed to the simple demand of the Filipino seamen. They paid them their wages for their last three months at sea.

It may seem incomprehensible that a strike was necessary to get a normal paycheck, or that stopping work for a day constitutes a challenge to the worldwide shipping business. But this simple job action unmasked changes that have transformed the lives of the world's sailors over the last quarter century. It highlights the growing pressure to change conditions which have become as barbarous as those a century ago.

Over the last 30 years, U.S. and European shipping companies have re-flagged their huge, ocean-going vessels, registering them in countries like Panama and Liberia under "flags of convenience." Re-flagging ships exempts them from regulations and union contracts in their original countries, which require high wages and good conditions.

Shipping companies have then dumped their high-wage U.S. and European crews on the beach, replacing them with seamen and deck officers from countries around the Pacific Rim, especially the Philippines. Over 250,000 Filipinos now sail the high seas, more than any other nationality.

High-paid European captains and a few officers still rule over these low-paid Asian crews. In an historical irony, the Spanish captain of the Mundogas, earning $8000 a month (as well as a cut of the food concession,) gave orders to workers from Spain's former colony, earning $1500 a month for a deck officer, and $1200 a month for an able-bodied seaman.

Aris Shipping Ltd., which owns the Mundogas, and the vessel's operator, Arbross Ship Management of Hong Kong, used a labor contractor, BIS-Manila, to hire the crew, a common practice. BIS-Manila, in turn, used another practice which inspectors for the International Transport Workers Federation (ITF) call a modern-day, ocean-going epidemic. They failed to pay the crew for months at a time, and neglected to send the crewmen's families the full monthly allotment check they need to survive.

BIS-Manila did not respond to requests for an interview.

Adding personal indignity to economic problems, the crew grew resentful of the captain's authoritarian treatment. According to Armando Balmonte, the Mundogas radio officer, "instead of calling me on the phone in my radio room, and talking to me like another human being, he would just yell out my name from the bridge."

"At first I thought these were just problems on the Mundogas," explains Ferdinand Lamadrid, the ship's electrician. "But then I sailed on another ship in the same line, the Orinoco, and had the same experience."

"The ship owners and many captains have no respect for us," adds Isidro Castillo, the Mundogas third officer. "They think they're superior because the Philippines used to be a colony."

Faced with low pay, and often no pay, the Filipino deck officers began to talk to representatives of the Seafarer's Ministry in Stockton. Then they got in touch with the ITF inspector in San Francisco, Jack Heyman. Starting last May, they met every time the ship docked in northern California. In July, Heyman gave an official boycott notice to the ship's captain, warning him of possible industrial job action. The company had failed to renew its ITF agreement, which sets the crew's wages and conditions, and guarantees they get paid properly. But the warning was ignored.

Meanwhile, Filipino deck officers held secret meetings while the ship was at sea, to decide what action to take to get paid. "We had to talk in secret," Lamadrid says, " because we were all afraid of being fired." Behind concern for their jobs was an even bigger fear - the blacklist. Bad pay and conditions on board are reinforced by an elaborate system under which Filipino seamen can be blacklisted four separate ways.

When a crewman leaves the ship, its captain can write any comment he likes in the book all seamen must show to get a job. If he writes that a sailor is incompetent, the man will never work again. Backing up the captain is the Philippine Association of Maritime Agencies, which shares lists of troublemakers among its member ship owners and labor contractors.

A Philippine government agency, the Philippines Overseas Employment Administration, also maintains a blacklist of workers who organize strikes and labor unrest, according to Heyman. Finally, sailors say that their own union, the Association of Maritime Officers and Seamen's Union of the Philippines, discourages job actions. "If you organize a strike, and later go to the union looking for a job, they'll ask you 'why did you do that?'" one Mundogas crewmember alleges.

AMOSUP was organized in 1972 by Ferdinand Oca, Sr., with government support, at the beginning of martial law under the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos.

The Philippine government's economic policy encourages workers to seek employment overseas, and millions of Filipino families depend on foreign remittances by overseas workers to survive. Labor unrest makes Filipino workers less attractive to foreign employers. It's not a prospect the government or labor contractors view favorably.

But the Mundogas sailors were able to count on support by U.S. longshoremen, who have a long history of job action in support of foreign crews. When the Mundogas docked in Sacramento on September 21, Heyman came on board. The deck officers had already agreed among themselves to take action, and they approached the crew for support. In the Philippines, there is a shortage of deck officers, who can therefore move from ship to ship. But for seamen, there is a labor surplus, making the loss of a job much riskier. As a result, the crew split, with a little over half deciding to support the officers.

Then the ship moved from Sacramento to Stockton. Filipino officers made a list of safety violations, including a leak in one of the tanks, and problems with the steering gear and oil/water separator, and turned it over to the Coast Guard. After pulling alongside the dock in Stockton, the Filipinos struck.

Key to the action was keeping the captain from hooking up the hose to discharge the cargo. "We were committed to putting our bodies between the hose and the connection if necessary," Lamadrid remembers. "The captain was shaking. He ordered one of the Spanish officers to get rid of the picketsigns, but after he started to rip them away, we warned him off."

Stockton ILWU Longshore Local 54's president Danny Caruso was on the docks, and with other longshoremen, began to yell "They have a right to strike!" After seeing a bonafide picketline, which their contract allows them to respect, Local 54 members decided to refuse to work the ship. Local 6 members, seeing the evident danger of a leak of toxic ammonia, stood by on a health and safety beef.

The shipping agent in Stockton, Trans Navigation Co., which was familiar with the ability of longshoremen to tie up the ship, advised Aris and BIS-Manila to settle with the seamen. After intense negotiations, crewmembers not only won back pay, but forced BIS-Manila to sign a new ITF agreement.

Fearing the captain's blacklist, the Filipino crewmembers elected to fly home to Manila after their strike. Disgusted with treatment by BIS-Manila, they decided to seek jobs with other shipping lines.

"I know we will have big consequences when we arrive in the Philippines," worries Balmonte, the radio officer. "I know this will affect my family. But the mistreatment was inhuman, and I'm still upset about it. I just couldn't take anymore."

Lamadrid, however, believes the crew's action opens a door to improving conditions on other ships. "We're going to tell other Filipino sailors what happened here," he promises. " Other seamen can do what we did if they stick together. And if sailors and longshoremen in different countries can also find ways to support each other, we can all win something better. That's what we did in Stockton."

"We're really all employed by the same companies," Heyman says. "As things stand now, we're all pitted against each other as shippers look from country to country for lower wages. But we can learn to cooperate."

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photographs and stories by David Bacon © 1990-1999

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