This article originally appeared in La Jornada Filipina en español.
A few years ago, I embarked on an adventure across the seas working as a cruise ship musician. I didn’t know exactly what the experience was going to be like, but without a doubt, the fact that most of the workers were Filipinos was one of the first things that caught my attention. From day one, I was lucky enough to be able to share my time and work with a Filipino musician named George.
“We Filipinos are very good employees. We work hard, we work well as a team, we don’t complain and we are always happy,” George told me after asking him about the number of Filipinos working aboard the first ship I was on, the Celebrity Silhouette, owned by Royal Caribbean.
As the weeks went by, I was able to observe the way Filipinos interacted with one another, with their colleagues of different nationalities and with their superiors. I could not help but ponder on certain reflections.
Veterans in this type of tourism know that one of the main reasons for booking a cruise vacation is the service, provided by one of the most curious and unique labor sectors in the world: the crew.
The crew on a cruise ship is a large family composed of at least 30 different nationalities. The most popular countries of origin are India, Indonesia and, of course, the Philippines. It is estimated that approximately one third of the crew of all ships come from this archipelago.
Before the health crisis, the number of Filipinos working abroad, known as Overseas Filipino Workers, was about 2.3 million in 2018.
From my experience, it is absolutely true that working on a cruise ship in most positions is tough: long hours, double or triple shifts with no days off and very few hours off. Another important factor is the fact that you are working far away from your home and family. Most employment contracts for Filipinos are between six to eight months, followed by a period of about two or three months at home, often even less.
Most crewmembers agreed that all this time away from loved ones is one of the hardest aspects of the job. “The worst thing about working here is when homesickness hits you. At the same time, when there’s a problem at home, you have to be aware that you’re not going to be able to be there for your family … There won’t be much you can do, other than pray. To work as a crewmember, you have to be strong no matter what,” explained Ron Tuazon, an orchestra musician for more than three years.
Filipinos have been considered a reliable working people for years. The fact that they are employed in so many jobs in so many different sectors confirms this statement.
“They provide a tremendous level of service. Our guests love them,” said in 2016 by Richard Fain, CEO of Royal Caribbean LTD, which in 2019 alone earned around $10 billion.
Having mentioned some of the difficulties of working on a cruise ship, I wonder why so many Filipinos choose this way of life. In the opinion of the majority of Filipinos interviewed: it is very difficult to find a job in the Philippines with a salary similar to that of the crewmembers. All interviewees agree that the main reason is the opportunity to provide economic stability for their family. Many of them also state that very often in the Philippines, the level of requirements for a job is far above the salary to be earned.
Tessa Jean Noel has been a musician and vocalist aboard cruise ships for more than 15 years. She explained to me that, unfortunately, there are not enough job opportunities on land to be able to provide a good future for your loved ones. “It’s very sad, but the good thing about working abroad is that we have the opportunity to show the world how well we Filipinos work,” she added.
Financial gain seems to be the main reason why many Filipinos choose to work on ships or abroad; the flow of money coming into the Philippines from many corners of the world is immense. In 2019, an estimated $32.2 billion came into the islands from the wages of Filipinos working outside the country, this being the main driver of the Philippine economy.
Despite the fact that the Filipino crew are scattered among dozens of different jobs, it’s easy to see that when their shifts are over, Filipinos like to surround themselves with their countrymen. However, that doesn’t take away from the fact that they are a broad-minded, open-armed people.
One of the first things that brought me together with Filipinos was basketball. During my early days as a staff member, I would see dozens of Filipinos dressed in sportswear walking briskly down the aisles. They would make their way to the top floor of the ship, where there is often a basketball facility. One day, I was encouraged and decided to go up and explore. I discovered that games were being organized daily, even championships lasting several weeks. Thinking that maybe it would be a “Filipino-only” event, I didn’t dare ask, until after a few minutes they were the ones who invited me to play with them.
Another two of the most common activities outside the work environment are organizing parties and playing music; concerts are often organized in the crew bar whenever there’s a celebration. In this scenario, Filipinos also invited me to participate, having the opportunity to play music and share the party with them.
Through these activities and others, a strong and joyful community of fellow countrymen united for the same purpose is created within a floating city.
Anthony Antipolo has been employed at the ship’s onboard casino for 11 years. “Working among so many fellow countrymen makes you never feel completely alone. They understand you better mentally and emotionally, and you always have someone you can count on,” he said.
However, it seems that, despite being in the majority, the Filipino community does not have it so easy on board cruise ships either.
Sometimes, working surrounded by so many people from your own country can also cause tension and discomfort.
Gilbert Ybarola, who started his career as a dishwasher seven years ago and worked his way up to the position of waiter, explained to me that: “working among fellow countrymen is comfortable because they understand you easily, however, there are also certain negative attitudes or envy for the achievements you may have reached.”
Despite the fact that one third of the crew is of Filipino origin, they do not usually occupy positions of great responsibility within the hierarchy on board. That is to say, although they are considered great maritime workers, it is not at all common to see a Filipino officer.
“Even though the crew is majority Asian, we still feel like the minority,” Noel said.
A customer service employee, who preferred to remain anonymous, explained to me: “Not only Filipinos, but all Asian crew in general, are hindered from moving up to positions of greater responsibility. Although we are given a lot of lectures about zero tolerance for discrimination, no one can deny that racism is present, albeit in disguise. Thus it is said that we, Filipinos and Asians in general, have an almost impossible time competing with our European and American counterparts.”
However, there is a tendency that this is changing. In my years as a crewmember, I have seen Filipinos in senior positions leading important departments. That said, despite this modest curve of change, it is not the general sentiment among Filipinos.
The tourism sector has been by far one of the hardest hit by the outbreak of COVID-19. If you mix a factor of extreme confinement in enclosed spaces (airplanes and ships for the most part), the result is disastrous.
Counting only the three largest cruise lines (Norwegian Cruise Lines, Carnival and Royal Caribbean), losses have been estimated at around $900 million since the beginning of the pandemic.
When COVID-19 gripped the world, the first to disembark from the cruise ships and return home were, of course, the guests. Then came the crisis of repatriation of all workers, except for those essential to “keep the ship afloat.”
This operation has not been easy, since most countries closed their air borders, and the disembarkation of personnel in foreign ports was prohibited. Thus, for months, more than half a million crew members had to wait for companies, airlines, governments and other entities to come to an agreement.
In addition, the “no work, no pay” policy was established, further contributing to the desperation and uncertainty of those affected. Gradually, however, repatriation began to take effect. Many workers were grouped by nationality and sent by plane to an airport near their destination. In other cases, as in the case of many Filipinos, they were transferred to a few ships that crossed oceans until they reached the port of Manila, where they again had to wait for permission from the authorities to set foot on dry land.
For many crewmembers, the whole process lasted three to four months of anguish, depression and fear. The real battle, therefore, would arise once home, as without the substantial income provided by working on cruise ships, maintaining household finances would again be a challenge.
“This situation is being extremely hard and depressing. All my plans vanished instantly, however, I have to stand my ground,” Antipolo confessed to me.
Back home again, facing an even more impoverished economy than before was a very hard blow. Many Filipinos had to seek out opportunities where they were either considered overqualified because of their experience on ships, or had to resign themselves to a significant reduction in pay, or both at the same time.
The Philippine government implemented a financial assistance scheme for repatriated workers from the ships — the well-known AKAP (“Abot Kamay ang Pagtulong”) program of the Department of Labor and Employment, which consisted of a one-time payment of PH₱10,000. At the same time, similar initiatives like this were apparently not enough for the workers who always remained in the Philippines, considering that the savings made by the crewmen would have to be enough to get by for a few months.
Tuazon had to give up his career as a professional musician, and he struggled to find a job to support his family. “I tried working as an online seller and as a delivery rider, but it was not enough. One day, my wife and I decided to open a small food business near our home and that helped to be able to support the family. Thank God after 8 months we survived, and I was able to return to the cruise ships to practice my profession,” he explained.
It seems that, little by little, the cruise industry is becoming active again, albeit with strict restrictions. At the moment, a vaccination certificate is mandatory for crew members and passengers. In the case of most workers, the companies are providing this service. After quarantine, the crew members are allowed on board the ship, where they can only go out to visit the destinations in a small group under supervision.
The COVID-19 outbreak has been yet another challenge to overcome for a community accustomed to struggling to provide a hopeful future for their sons and daughters. More than 300,000 Overseas Filipino Workers were repatriated in 2020 while 1.6 million were displaced by the pandemic as of October last year.
Despite all these misfortunes at the expense of the pandemic, the situation seems to be normalizing little by little. Most of my friends from the Philippines whom I made on board the cruise ships are working again — at full pace and always with a smile on their faces, both for the passengers and for their colleagues, until the end of the day.
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