Of pirates and profits

Welcome to busy Manila Bay, where sailors haggle and commercial ships find their crews.

By Carlos Conde
Published: April 19, 2009 11:36 ET

MANILA — Miguel Jacob is a fixture on TM Kalaw Street.

His neon green folder held aloft, he weaves through the men gathered near Manila Bay, not saying a word unless someone checks out the words and numbers on the paper he thrusts in their face.

When that happens, Jacob launches into a spiel designed to convince his audience to ship out to sea with his company. One can always tell a negotiation is taking place the moment Jacob hunches over and begins speaking in a low voice.

Jacob, 25, is a recruiter for MichaelMar Philippines, an agency that places Filipino sailors on the container ships and bulk carriers that ply the world’s shipping routes. He and several others like him are denizens of a veritable sailors’ market along TM Kalaw Street, near what used to be Manila’s prostitution strip.

Here, sailors — nearly a thousand on most days — find jobs, haggle for the best salaries, commune with their colleagues and exchange gossip about the various recruitment agencies.

For young sailors like Jacob who dream of the sea, the market is their first destination. Although so-called manning agencies are still a popular choice, the sailors’ market offers more opportunities for Filipino sailors, who man the most ships worldwide. The agencies run dozens of the booths at the market, where competition often leads them to offer higher salaries.

Like a flea market, the sailors’ market doesn’t have anyone actually running it. The government permits the use of the sidewalk and a portion of a public park and a non-governmental group comprised of sailors maintains an office nearby. The group offers assistance, including free lodging, chilled water and wi-fi connections, to the sailors who endure the heat and smog to linger at the market all day.

The sailors and recruiters here are constantly negotiating. Those who are waiting to hear about applications or who simply have time on their hands can play chess, protected from the searing sun by the tall mahogany and mango trees and makeshift tents.

Vendors, meanwhile, sell anything from pirated DVDs to snacks, chilled bottled water, used shoes, newspapers, even houses. One entrepreneur offers full-body massages; on a particularly hot day this week, a shirtless sailor sitting on a plastic stool gets the brisk body work while many others line up for the same treatment.

Then there’s the eye-and-ear cleaner, who, for a small fee and using nothing but a cotton bud or tweezer, cleans eyeballs and plucks the hair — and wax! — off his clients’ ears. It’s not a pretty or comfortable sight but the sailors who mill around seem to enjoy it — just another boredom-buster as far as they’re concerned.

It wasn’t always like this at the sailors’ market, whose growth over the years is linked to the development of seafaring in the Philippines. According to the Overseas Employment Administration, 30 percent of the world’s merchant sailors — about 270,000 people — are Filipinos. They are among the eight million Filipino workers overseas whose remittances — more than $16 billion last year — help keep the economy afloat.

It’s not clear when the sailors’ market began, but it started to take on a life of its own when those waiting for their appointments at the manning agencies across the street would kill time in the shade. The area transformed from a mere waiting shed for sailors, who are mostly from the provinces, into an area teeming with sailors and vendors who quickly followed.

“It’s better than the mall,” said a sailor, who only identified himself as Ronald, scanning the crowd in front of him. Ronald, who comes from Roxas City in the central Philippines, has been here twice and hopes to find a job as a utility man, an all-around crew member who does menial labor such as cleaning toilets.

Ronald said he’s not aiming for a higher position right now because the global economic crisis has caused some Filipino-manned ships to cancel their trips. He cannot afford to be picky.

“We’ve heard of sailors who couldn’t find board ships because of the crisis. Some recruiters have also been offering lower wages,” said Michael Cardenas, a utility man who is working temporarily as a recruiter for Technonav Crew Management. Cardenas was one of several sailors and recruiters who said they were concerned about the state of the global economy and its impact on their job prospects.

And as for the pirates of Somalia, the current scourge of the seafaring world who now hold more than a hundred Filipino sailors hostage — the most of any nationality?

“There is always a danger in what we do. But the benefits outweigh the risks,” said Jacob, himself a sailor and the father of a child, who hopes to earn as much as $800 per month working on a ship, almost four times the minimum wage in Manila. “We have to think of our family and our future.”

About Carlos H. Conde

Researcher at Human Rights Watch (@condeHRW @hrw_ph). Former journalist (NYT, IHT, among others).
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