Filipino seafarers stranded in Uruguay plead to come home

Seventeen Filipino seafarers stranded for more than two months now aboard a ship in Montevideo, Uruguay, are pleading to come home. The seafarers are among the thousands of seamen who are trapped in ships because of border closures and travel restrictions brought by the COVID-19 pandemic.

One seafarer has died and his remains have yet to be repatriated to the Philippines.

In a video message made on July 23, the seafarers aboard the Chinese fishing vessel said they were left with scant resources for food and water and still did not know when they would be allowed to return to the Philippines.

Dalawang beses na lang po kami sa isang araw kumain tapos ‘yung tubig po namin dito ay may kasamang kalawang na. Hirap na rin po kami dito sa kalagayan namin,” said a seafarer who read a statement as the others stood behind him. (We only eat twice a day now and our water has rust. We are suffering.)

The seafarers also made a plea for the return of the remains of Rodel Catinoy, a sailor who had died while at sea.

May kasamahan po kaming isang Pilipino na namatay, si Rodel Catinoy. ‘Yung katawan po niya ay nandoon lang naiwan sa barkong… [inaudible] na ang pagkakaalam namin ay papunta na doon, pabalik na sa Peru upang mangisda ulit. Kumbaga sana po matulungan ‘nyo kami sa pag-uwi namin. Sana po mapadali po ito tapos kasama na rin sana namin ‘yung, makauwi na rin sana yung katawan ng naiwan naming kasamahan.

(We have a Filipino colleague who died, Rodel Catinoy. His body was left on a ship that as far as we know is going back to Peru to fish again. We hope you can help us get home. We hope we can go home soon. We also hope the remains of our colleague left behind can go home, too.)

Catinoy’s family said they are unsure why his remains cannot be sent back to the Philippines. “The manning agency said that they couldn’t retrieve the body because of COVID, but the cause of death wasn’t COVID so I don’t know what is causing the delay,” Rodel’s brother, Rohel, told Rappler in a mix of English and Filipino.

Sana mabalik ‘yung katawan ng kapatid ko,” he added, becoming emotional. (We hope my brother’s body is returned to us.)

Minda Jugal, mother of Jhon Lexter Jugal, one of the stranded seafarers, became so distraught when the subject of her son was brought up that she could only speak to Rappler through her sister, Minerva Catigbak.

According to Catigbak, her sister Minda did not know about the situation until recently when she received a text from labor rights groups that the seafarers had reached out for help.

“John Lexter was keeping the details of their conditions on board a secret so he wouldn't worry his Mama,” said Catigbak in a mix of English and Filipino.

Isolation, despair, death of crew members

The International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) estimates that there are about 300,000 seafarers around the world stuck aboard ships that cannot dock or are prevented from docking as country borders and seaports remain shuttered and closed to arrivals as a move to stop the spread of COVID-19.

The Philippines is the biggest supplier of seafarers. Approximately 25% of all the world’s seafarers are from the Philippines. Edwin dela Cruz, president of the International Seafarers Action Center (ISAC), estimates that there are about 100,000 Filipino seafarers among those stranded in ports, airports, and seaports around the world.

“Less than half have been repatriated. Thousands are stranded in Europe, China, and Sri Lanka. Among those repatriated, only a few have been given the $200 financial assistance promised by the government,” said Dela Cruz.

The government, working with labor groups and embassies, has been continuously repatriating Filipino migrant workers but seafarers have been among the most difficult to locate and extend assistance to.

“Some are not able to call us or their families because there may be no signal in the middle of the ocean where they are. Others are not allowed to make calls,” said Concepcion.

More than 90 seafarers were repatriated from different Chinese fishing vessels during the week of July 24.

Letters written by crew members detailed their brutal working conditions fishing for squid in the waters of Argentina, Peru, and Chile. The men work for 12 hours, with no rest days on weekends or during bad weather. There are no shore leaves and some of the men have not set off on land for more than a year. They also claimed that their promised monthly salary of $380 (approximately P19,000) had been withheld for several months. It is unclear if they will be compensated for the months they were stranded at sea.

The biggest problem they faced is their helplessness in the death of their colleagues.

Raul Calopez fell sick on the Lu Qing Yuan Yu 286, Lu Qing Yuan 287 Chinese fishing vessel where 80 Filipino seafarers were on board catching squid somewhere in Peru. A letter written by a crew member detailed how Calopez fell sick and did not get any medical attention.

He was later transferred to a boat and the crew heard after a few hours that he had died. “Napakasakit sa amin ang nangyari (What happened was very painful for us),” read the letter which Migrante shared with Rappler.

An incident report written by a crew member said Stanley Jungco met an accident on another ship when a steel bar hit his thigh on April 17, 2020. His leg started to swell and he began feeling unwell. His condition deteriorated until he had difficulty breathing. Jungco died on June 6, 2020.

The remains of Calopez and Jungco have yet to be returned to their families.

Jean Javellana, president of Global Maritime Crew Incorporated, did not want to comment on the issue. Global Maritime Crew is the recruitment agency handling the ships where Calopez and Jungco died.

Labor rights groups said the situation calls for a comprehensive and organized system that will cover the health and welfare of seafarers while stranded at sea, their repatriation, and the collection of their back pay from their manning agencies.

“The government has a hands-off approach to seafarers while they are at sea. Accountability for them is tossed around between the shipping company and the manning agency,” said Concepcion of labor rights group Migrante International.

Still a long way from home

After having been tested for COVID-19 and securing their health clearance, most of the more than 90 seafarers have been released for quarantine and are now making their way back to their respective hometowns.

Seafarers from hometowns that could be reached by land were sent off on buses through the government’s domestic repatriation program.

Others like Jhem Herdilla and Greg Tabulod will have to wait a little longer. Herdilla is from Sibalom, Antique, while Tabulod is from Roxas, Palawan. Both will need to get on a plane to return to their hometowns but while flights are scarce and irregular, they will need to endure another period of indefinite waiting.

Both have been at sea for over a year.

Tabulod boarded a squid fishing vessel on December 26, 2018, and set sail for the waters of Argentina, Chile, and Peru. Herdilla has been at sea since March 16, 2019.

Both went without speaking to their family for months at a time. Herdilla and Tabulod said that they did not even know there was a pandemic until last May when they thought they were on their way back to the Philippines via China.

STRANDED. Greg Tabulod left the Philippines on board a Chinese fishing vessel on December 26, 2018. With little internet access on board the ship, he did not know there was a pandemic until in May this year.

UNAWARE. Greg Tabulod left the Philippines on board a Chinese fishing vessel on December 26, 2018. With little internet access on board the ship, he did not know there was a pandemic until May this year.

Alecs Ongcal

‘Du’n lang kami nagka-signal sa China. Nagulat na lang kami na may pandemic daw at hindi kami makakauwi,” said 36-year-old Tabulod. (That’s the only time we got a signal, when we got to China. We were surprised to find out there was a pandemic and we wouldn’t be able to return home.)

Wala kaming signal sa gitna ng laot. Minsan 'pag may tanker na sasalinan kami ng krudo, nakiki-Wi-Fi kami. Pero ‘pag hindi sila nagbukas ng Wi-Fi nila, wala,” said the 26-year-old Herdilla. (We don’t have a signal when we’re in the middle of the ocean. Sometimes when a tanker comes to refuel our ship, we use their Wi-Fi, but if they don’t turn on their Wi-Fi – nothing.)

Jhem Heredilla has been at sea since March 16, 2019, with almost no communication with his family in Antique

CUT OFF. Jhem Heredilla had been at sea since March 16, 2019, with almost no communication with his family in Antique.

Alecs Ongcal

Both are still trying to get used to being back on land after being so long at sea and are very eager to be reunited with their families.

‘Yung kakulangan ng pagkain, kaya diskartehan ‘yun, eh. Pero ‘yung wala kang communication sa pamilya mo nang tagal, du’n ka halos mabaliw-baliw,” said Herdilla.

(You can do something about the inadequate food. But no communication with your family for a long period of time is what will drive you to madness.) – with reports from Leika Golez/Rappler.com

Our seafarers need help:

  1. Sanctuary and temporary shelter possibly in churches or hotel facilities – Once repatriated, seafarers are tested and kept in a government-hosted isolation facility. However, once their test results and health clearance are released, they can no longer stay in the government facilities and must find accommodations at their own expense.
  2. Monetary donations for food, masks, alcohol, and other hygiene supplies

If you would like to help, please reach out to Migrante International through +639212709079 or through their Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/migranteinternational