ALPSIDE DOWNED: Our People of the Sea (2)

BERN, Switzerland (MindaNews / 01 May) – Costa Crociere crew had it better  maybe a decade or two ago. They had higher pay and better work conditions then. In the year 2000, Carnival Corporation & plc, a Miami, Florida-based US cruise company, bought and took over the Costa Crociere.

Carnival is listed as the world’s largest travel leisure company, with a combined fleet of over 100 vessels across 10 cruise line brands. Its CEO, Micky Arison, is a millionaire who also owns the NBA team the Miami Heat.

But in January 2012, the Costa Concordia, then the largest Italian cruise ship,  struck a rock in the Tyrrhenian Sea just off a small Italian island. The disaster left 32 dead among the 3,229 passengers and 1,023 crew who were onboard that time. More significantly, the accident affected bookings on the entire Costa fleet.

(Incidentally, the Filipino crew on that ship helped save many lives during the six-hour evacuation of the ship. My source says the Filipinos kept their wits and formed human chains that allowed most of the the 3,229 passengers and 1,023 crew known to have been aboard to pass to safety.)

But the bad publicity and estimated losses  of over USD 400 million — aside from USD 5 billion from lost shares — from the Costa Concordia sinking, coupled with new management regulations, resulted in changes, such as the lowering of take home pay, multi-tasking for the crew and generally more difficult conditions.

Carnival chief executive Micky Arison said in 2013: “As a result of the Costa Concordia tragedy in January, the past year has been the most challenging in our company’s history.”

A crew member I asked says his take-home pay now is only a thousand dollars, and could even go lower in the future.

There is general agreement among the crew members we were able to talk to that the best times are over for ship crews.

Others feel that Magsaysay Maritime Corporation or MMC, the Philippine agent which schools and trains prospective seamen and exclusively supplies human resources for the ships of the Costa Crociere, could have made a better deal for their Filipino workers.

In 2014, Marlon R. Rono, MMC president, was quoted as saying that Filipino crew members are very much in demand onboard “because of their proverbial hospitality and quality service.”

During our trip, the Filipinos readily take the cash tips that are offered to them. There is none of the coyish “huwag na po, hindi po kelangan ang tip” attitude that is typical of us. The times are hard, and tips augment their decreasing pay.

For some, the cost of leaving their families has been high. Joey (not his real name), a seaman from Bohol, narrated that during his trips, his wife met someone else and cheated him. “Na-tokhang man siya sa dalan, ser,” was how he described his marital misfortune. When he learned about this indiscretion, Joey and his wife had to separate.

Others who are considered old-timers among the crew narrated that their short 2-month vacations in between their trips are not enough to reunite the family bond. They feel that their children are already strangers to them, and that their time with their wives often felt like formal liaisons, and not an intimate reunion with partners.

The crew members are also always careful about their work. Hierarchies and rankings on the ship are strictly enforced. Onboard, there is competition to rise above the others and be recognized by their superiors, and there are intrigues and backbiting that are maybe inherent in working in such close quarters.

In the  crew that we met, there was only one Filipino we considered to be among middle-management, a chef de service who presided over the nightly dinners. But never one among the officers.

A source also says there are cases of unscrupulous passengers intentionally damaging cabin property or reporting the theft and loss of their belongings, to take advantage of a reported management policy to offer a refund or a fare discount to appease the troubled client.

But the unfortunate victim of this scam is the room steward, who faces unwarranted searches of his person and belongings and potential blacklisting if he is unable to prove his innocence.

Some Filipinos feel the government could help the so-called “seafarers” by lobbying for them the same benefit packages as that of land-based overseas workers.  These would include better security of tenure and conditions for employment; for regular work contracts as against contract-based work; regulations on holidays and paid annual leave; health and social security benefits provided by the shipowner; and assurances of repatriation if needed.

Such measures could help our own “people of the sea”, who deserve no less credit as the OFWs who have secure land under their footing. (Mindanawon Abroad is MindaNews’ effort to link up with Mindanawons overseas who would like to share their thoughts about their home country and their experiences in their adopted countries. Brady Eviota wrote and edited for the now defunct Media Mindanao News Service in Davao and also for the SunStar Cagayan de Oro. He  is from Surigao City and now lives in Bern, the Swiss capital located near the Bernese Alps)