David Bacon Stories & Photographs
The Story of a Filipino Seafarer
by David Bacon

NEW YORK (10/29/00) - In mid-September, a luxurious cruise ship, its hull painted bright red, steamed into New York harbor, and docked at Staten Island. The ship's passengers disembarked, leaving behind a crew of a hundred Filipino seamen. There the ship sat. Its operator, Premiere Cruise Lines, declared bankruptcy, and a Manhattan judge made the giant floating casino a hostage to guarantee repayment of the company's debts.

But when Federal marshals held the ship at the pier, the crew became virtual prisoners as well. For a month they were stuck aboard with no money or means to return home.

Every year millions of Filipinos venture outside the Philippines, to work abroad where jobs are more plentiful, and wages higher than back home. A quarter of a million of them are sailors - today more seafarers come from the Philippines than from any other country in the world.

Employment agencies on the Manila waterfront are besieged by job-seekers. The lucky ones get contracts, like those signed by the crew of the Big Red Boat. Supposedly, they guarantee an 8-hour day and other standard working conditions. But on the Big Red Boat, the crew put in twice as many hours. Their yeoman efforts weren't enough, though, to save their jobs, or even their paychecks.

Those 10-month contracts required the company to guarantee workers' wages as well, so that at the end of the voyage, sailors would have money to send their families back home. That guarantee turned out to be as ephemeral as all the others made when the workers left Manila.

After weeks on the dock, the crew was finally released and sent home. But the same hard economic choices which led them onto the Big Red Boat didn't disappear. Sitting on the pier beside the ship, Jose Panizales, one of the crewmen, predicted that like his workmates, he would soon go to sea again.

I'm 27 years old, and I come from Iloilo City, on Panay, one of the islands in the Philippines. My family still lives there.

I was a bar waiter here on the Big Red Boat. I started in 1997.

I actually got my first job in 1994. That's when I went to Manila to look for work, which I found in a craft factory. But the salary was very low. It's very hard to find a job in Manila. And if you have no money in the Philippines, you are nothing.

Before I got the job on the Big Red Boat, I was a utility worker for nine months for Five Summer Corp. Four of us - myself and three coworkers - were all waiting for an available ship, trying to convince the agency to give us a chance. I was a messenger, I worked in the office and cleaned it every day. Sometimes they sent me to look for people they needed to talk to in the ticketing office. I just did whatever they asked me to do.

But the agency never paid us for this work. They would give us money for bus fare when we had to go places, and sometimes free food. But no wages.

I did this for nine months because I was hoping they would eventually give me work on a ship. If you don't make some sacrifices to look for a job in the Philippines, you won't get one. Most Filipino seafarers have had to do this at one time or another. If you don't have a relative who's a captain or other relatives to help you - if you are the lowest one - you have to sacrifice yourself. That's what I had to do to convince the agency to send me out.

Finally I got the job on the ship in 1997. My family was very happy. Until then, my brothers and sisters couldn't afford to go to school. I'm the oldest, and that's why I'm supporting them. There are eight of them, and they're all in school now. Without the money I send home, it wouldn't be possible for them to go.

They all live in Iloilo. My parents are old now, and can't work. My father was a farmer, and we still have a rice farm outside of the city, in the province. I call it the silent area - the place I like the most. I really look forward to going home, to see my family and my friends. My girlfriend is waiting for me.

But that's also why I'll have to look for a job in another company as soon as I get back.

The officers on the Big Red Boat boat are all Greek, and the seamen are all Filipinos and Indonesians. But I don't think this is discrimination. It's just the way it is.

I started in the kitchen, as an assistant cook, at $650 a month. Then I was promoted into the bar department, where I could make more than that. Sometimes I even made $1500 or 1600 dollars a month, if you include the tip. When there are lots of passengers, you can make money here, but when there aren't so many, you earn a lot less - maybe $1000. I serve people, smile with them, even sing with them. I enjoy it - you go a lot of places in the world, and you meet a lot of people. But once you get old, you can't do this job anymore - you're nothing again.

I studied marine engineering for two years, and graduated from school in Iloilo. Working in the engine room pays better than work in the bar, and it's a lifetime job. But even working in the bar pays 3 or 4 times what I made in the factory in Manila.

The job on the boat is a very good one. There are lots of Filipinos who do this kind of work. Even though people have families in the Philippines, and we all miss them, we still take jobs abroad. In the Philippines, the wages of the people are very very low.

I spent two years working for Premiere Cruise Lines. Then we heard rumors from the officers that the company might go bankrupt. We sailed into Halifax, in Canada, after stopping at Newport and the Virgin Islands. Three other ships operated by Premiere were also there. We were called into a meeting at six in the morning, where everyone kept asking what was happening.. We didn't have any idea. Then all of the passengers were transferred to our ship, and the boat came here to New York, to deliver them back to the states.

Since then, the ship just sits here, on this dock in Staten Island, not sailing anywhere. We've been here over two weeks. We were very worried about how we'd get paid, how we'd get home, what would happen to us. Our chief purser was the one who finally arranged things for us.

Even after all this, though, a lot of people will apply to work here again if they get the chance. I think what happened to us could happen again. I've heard of this problem before. I have friends who are seamen, who've told me that the company they were working for never paid them. Sometimes Filipino sailors get to port, and get stranded like us. I think this is a common problem.

But I still think this is a pretty good job, even though I can see now there's a risk that I won't get paid. And when I get back, I'll have to look for another one like it. I don't think I'll need to work for free again, though. I'll look for another agency, and I already have some experience at this work.

After I get married, I'll still have to work on the ships. I'll still be away from my family for long periods, even 8 or 10 months at a time. It's a sacrifice - a simple word, but a hard thing to endure. After I get married and have some land, maybe I'll be able to stop doing this, I'd like to start a business, so I have to make enough money first on the ships to do that.

It might take another 10 years, but I have a plan.

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photographs and stories by David Bacon © 1990-

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