Overseas Filipino Sea-Based Workers A Focus on Fish workers

by Rolando Talampas
Maritime Education and Resource Center (MERC)



The Philippines and her people, like the other countries and peoples of insular Southeast and South Asia, have a long historical maritime tradition. Boat-building and fishing have been important economic activities of the people who inhabited coastal, near-coastal and riverine settlements then called barangays. On permanent exhibit at the National Museum in Manila is the "Butuan Boat," which was accidentally excavated by an engineer in 1976 at a river delta in Agusan del Norte Province in northeastern Mindanao, a living testament to the industry and craftsmanship of what one writer called ship-shape societies that found in structures like these symbols that attended weddings, burials and other rituals of classical societies.

During Spain’s colonial rule of the Philippines from the middle of the 16th century to the early 19th century, much of the country’s best men and timber were employed to build and man the famed galleons which brought Chinese luxury goods to Mexico via the Manila entrepot. Filipinos, derisively called Luzon indios by the Spaniards, were among those who helped settle portions of Spanish America. Those who survived Moro, British and Dutch pirate attacks on the high seas, a lack of food and fresh water, inclement weather, long and harsh conditions on board during voyages, shipwrecks, etc., were somehow treated kindly by church people who grew California Valencia oranges that helped these Filipino crewmen fight the dreaded scurvy.

For the professional training of Filipino officers on the galleons, and later on the British-built steamships, the Spanish Crown ordered the opening of Asia’s first maritime training institution in 1820, the Escuela Nautica de Manila or Escuela de Pilotaje, which was later called the Philippine Nautical School when the American colonial government reopened it in 1914 and which is now called the Philippine Merchant Marine Academy, a state college.

After World War II, it took a rather long time before new schools were opened to train maritime students. Many new maritime schools, now totaling 57, have been opened since 1972, the year when former President Ferdinand Marcos put the Philippines under martial law. In 1991, maritime schools had a total enrollment of more than 100,000 students, concentrated mostly in the national capital region and the Central Visayas (principally Cebu City) and Western Visayas (principally in Iloilo City) areas. With a small fleet of close to 5,000 vessels, mostly wooden-hulled fishing boats, it was clear where large numbers of maritime graduates trained for larger merchant vessels were going: abroad.


The world shipping industry has for some time now relied on "competitive," schooled and skilled maritime labor from countries like the Philippines. Sailing mostly under the flags of Panama and Liberia, Filipino and other Third World crew members who accept wages lower than those prescribed for nationals of the true home countries of the owners of these vessels significantly cut the high operational costs. A Filipino able-bodied seafarer receives US$276 in basic wages per month compared with at least US$1,000 or more for U.S., British, Hong Kong Chinese or Japanese nationals.

In 1991, 104,807 or 41% of the 254,543 sea-based workers in the Philippine government’s manpower registry were employed overseas. A higher figure of more than 147,000 deployed was released to the local media earlier this year, but the former statistics have been culled from actual reports of 234 out of the 287 recruiting/shipping agencies. Nevertheless, the number of "deployed" and "processed," terms used by the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA), has dramatically increased in the last two years.

We have always believed that contract migration from the Philippines to the various host countries in the Asia-Pacific, Middle East, Europe and North America has been a "two-step" process, the first step being from the rural areas to the city, principally metro Manila, and then from the city to the world. Perhaps this is not the case anymore with fishworkers.


Apart from those who are employed directly or indirectly (contractually under subcontracting master fishermen) by Philippine deep-sea commercial fishing corporations, like Frabelle, Frabal, Mar Fishing and RBL, Filipino fishworkers have begun to be recruited straight from certain rural areas surrounding the national capital region and now as far south as the Visayas and Mindanao regions.

In 1988, POEA reported that it placed 1,912 fishworkers on board Taiwanese, Japanese and American fishing vessels; two years later the figure rose to 3,804. In 1991, of the 2,472 fish workers in the POEA manpower registry, 1,818 or about 74% were employed overseas. These figures hardly give the total picture of those fish workers who have actually secured employment abroad since most of them have been forced to leave the Philippines using either the northern (via Laoag in Ilocos Norte Province and Aparri in Cagayan Province) or southern (Sulu Province, Tawi-tawi Province, etc.) back door exits.

About 40 Philippine recruitment agencies deploy fishworkers, but only 10 of these have more than 10 fishing vessels enrolled with the Philippine government. Initially, the recruitment of workers was undertaken by 15 accredited agencies.


From November 1990 to May 1991, the POEA reports that seven of 12 large recruitment agencies were involved in 40 "welfare" cases. Two of these seven had four cases each; one had seven cases; three had one case each; and one had 22 cases.

In January 1991, a probe was ordered by the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) of three agencies -the notorious Seahorse Fishery and Aquatic Resources, Eastern Horizon Maritime Services Inc. and S tar-board Shipping Agency - and their respective owners/operators/officers for victimizing 370 fishworkers by offering non-existent jobs in Taiwan. In the same year, it was reported that one of these owner/operators was apprehended and deported by Taiwanese authorities for smuggling workers into Taiwan.

The most recent POEA findings indicate that conditions on board fishing boats include a "lack of first aid facilities, the denial of food, physical assault, a lack of communication facilities and a lack of protective clothing." The Global War against Small Cretaceans, the second report of the Environmental Investigation Agency in the United States, has reprinted a Mauritian L’Express clipping of April 5, 1991, showing two Filipino crew members of the Taiwanese vessel MV Yu Chan Sar with "serious frostbite injuries after being forced to work in the ship’s freezers without any gloves where temperatures are as low as minus 20 degrees Celsius." It added that on the same boat, which uses 145 kilometer drift nets, several crew members were seriously beaten by the Taiwanese boatswain and mates after the Filipinos became exhausted from an average of three hours of sleep each night. One crew member, Ramiro Montoya, was repeatedly beaten and then chained in a storeroom for 30 days after proving to be incapable of working."

Other problems cited by POEA include "language barriers, the nonpayment of wages and/or non-remittance of allotments" to families and the non-payment of medical compensation. (In connection with the "language barrier" problem, former POEA administrator Jose Sarmiento instructed recruitment agencies in 1990 through Memo Circular No.41 to provide fishermen with "appropriate basic conversational language training" as part of the predeparture orientation package.)

POEA Memo Circular No.60 issued in 1989 states that the standard employment contract, which is valid for one year (this contract will be reviewed by a tripartite meeting by the end of July 1992), prescribes US$250 for fishworkers, plus catch bonuses of US$1.00 per metric ton per crew member for purse seines and trawlers and 30% of their basic pay for long-line vessels.

Deadly Hours, Missing Fishworkers, Deaths and Mutinies

Long working hours, extending to 20 or 21 hours, tires fishworkers to such an extent that being thrown overboard and being declared missing at sea becomes a distinct possibility, as in the case of Filipino and Taiwanese workers of the Yung Li Hau. While the families of missing Taiwanese fishworkers had already received death benefits, the families of Filipinos were told that their missing relatives were overpaid!

If not lost at sea, some workers have been abandoned by the vessel owners. For instance, the Philippine consul general in Agana, Guam, in a telex report to the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) said that 83 Filipino crew members between February and December 1990, mostly employed on Taiwanese fishing vessels, had been abandoned in Guam and had requested repatriation.

Mutinies resulting from the denial of food have also occurred on vessels, such as the Sheng-Fa-Tsai, where Filipinos killed two Taiwanese officers and swam to evade arrest. These incidents have resulted from "deception by recruiters and agencies in hiring crew members from the Philippines and the wanton disregard for proper procedures and documentation," the Philippine consul general said.

Nevertheless, details of other repatriations of fish workers are graphically presented in communication between DFA and its overseas missions. Some Filipino fishworkers though have been repatriated as a consequence of some form of amicable settlement between the agents of the vessel’s owners and the fishworkers who stood for their rights, as in the case of the Japanese Dai Maru No. 58, which sailed into Halifax, Canada, with stories of bodily harm being inflicted upon the Filipino crew by the Japanese officers. Only one Filipino fishworker, however, continued his complaint (assisted by the correspondent of the International Transport Workers’ Federation, lawyer Pompeyo Nolasco) against the agent - the Nippi Corp. - and the Japanese officer. As part of the settlement, the remaining seven accepted an offer to continue working on another vessel for the last two months of their contract. One fish-worker, a native of Bacolod who was afflicted with renal failure, found his condition on the second ship basically the same, if not worse, than his former boat. Negotiations by MERC to alleviate his condition through the medical privileges accorded to such cases by the Overseas Workers’ Welfare Administration (OWWA) proved futile. The last letter from his wife says that he has left again for a job abroad.

On returning from a short stint on another Japanese vessel shortly before this workshop, another worker on the Dai Maru, who was jobless for many months, showed up with Japanese charcoal-tipped cigarettes, less pounds than previously and a deep wound at the corner of his left eye, which he received when a large plastic buoy flew from the direction of a Japanese officer because this worker did not speak Nihongo.

(Ed. note: The following article was presented at the workshop "Responding to Migrant Workers’ Needs in Asia," June 1992, Hong Kong.)