Many Filipinos dream of becoming seafarers. Hiring companies make it a point to highlight not only the economic benefits but also the chance to travel all over the world. The popular image of a seafarer is one of a healthy, clean-uniformed individual who gets to travel around the world meeting interesting people and being in glamorous locations.
Still, like other employments, working as a seafarer also has its share of problems, among them workplace bullying. Workplace bullying has become a difficult management problem as company turnovers increase when seafarers can no longer cope. Human resource departments ill-equipped to address cases of bullying tend to let incidents go unresolved.
Racial discrimination, Asian seafarers face bullying
A veteran seafarer George Ramirez, 54, told Maritime Fairtrade that he experienced bullying in the early years of his career in the early 1990s. He used to work in the engine room of a cruise ship, but has since moved on to work on industrial freight ships.
“Maritime laws to regulate seafarers’ behavior were not strictly enforced in those days. I experienced bullying on board some of the ships I worked on, and I also heard of different stories from other seamen about how they got into fights when they stood up against bullies,” George said.
“On my first job as a seafarer, there were three of us who were Filipinos, and we were with Indonesians and Burmese. It was a new ship, and the higher officials were all white. We felt that those who were brown-skinned were treated differently, with less respect, compared to those who were white.”
George shared that there were times when Asian seafarers were not allowed to enter the pantry the white staff used, but the latter were allowed to freely enter and use the pantry that the Asians used.
“We also noticed how the ship kitchen staff kept the pantry used by the white seafarers well-stocked with cheese, fruit, and chocolates. In contrast, our pantry was practically empty – the refrigerator mostly had only water,” he recollected.
The treatment at work was also disheartening for George.
“My white supervisors would have me woken up very early even if I was off duty or during my rest hours, and they would also order me to fix them coffee or fetch something from the refrigerator. I was new on board, so I just went along with it,” he said.
George was also made to run personal errands for supervisors, including the captain and chief engineer, like washing their underwear and uniforms. What was even more difficult for George was not allowed to suggest recommendations at work, and whenever he made the smallest mistake, he was immediately yelled at and even cursed at.
“There were even times when I was slapped or punched,” he said.
Like George, other Asian crew members were subjected to bullying in the form of discrimination. During BBQ parties or other public gatherings, they were not invited to eat at the tables which were occupied mostly by white crew members.
“The rest of us Asians just got food and we took it elsewhere. The gatherings were supposed to be open to everyone, but it was hard to enjoy them when we were being treated like we were second or even third-class people,” George said.
Throughout those first years, George gritted his teeth and took all the bullying in stride. He said all he wanted was to keep his job.
“I considered the bullying as a challenge I just had to overcome,” he said. At the same, however, George prayed and hoped for changes. Change finally began to happen when a new captain came aboard the ship George was assigned to. The man appeared open to feedback, so George mustered his courage to finally speak out about how he and the other Asian seafarers were treated.
“I told the captain about the bullying and the discrimination we were often subjected to, and I spoke of all these in front of the white crewmen. I didn’t care what the white crewmen would say or do to me afterward, I just spoke out. It was a gamble on my part, but I thought either things could go worse or get better,” he said.
George’s gamble paid off. The new captain wrote a report on everything George said, with recommendations for stronger policies to be enforced against acts of bullying, whether verbal or physical. He sent the report to the manning agency as well as to the shipping company.
“The captain also called for a meeting of all the crew and announced that changes had to be made. He stood up for all of us Asian seafarers and said that the white crewmen should immediately change their behavior towards us or face sanctions,” he said.