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Filipino Seafarers: In their Own Words

My wife and I, together with longtime friends from Seattle, Idaho, and San Diego, recently embarked on a Mediterranean Cruise aboard the Norwegian Escape. The cruise traversed five countries – Spain, France, Italy, Malta, and Croatia – and twelve days of exploring several European cities and islands that my wife and I had dreamed of visiting for a long time like Barcelona, Palma de Mallorca, Cannes, Nice, Livorno, Pisa, Florence, Naples, Messina, Valletta, Corfu, Dubrovnik, and Venice, where we opted to stay for two extra days.

My wife and I are not new to international travelling. The first time we visited Europe was with our two daughters in 2006. But the first time we went on an ocean cruise as a family was in May of 2013, right after the wedding of our eldest daughter. There were 25 of us, including the members of the groom’s family, who went on a 7-day cruise to Alaska from Seattle aboard the Norwegian Pearl.

Cruising, which has brought my wife and me to more than 40 European cities, has provided us with the opportunity to meet as many people as possible and establish personal relationships that can last a lifetime. We also have learned from the culture that one is exposed to every time we disembark at a particular place.

I have an insatiable curiosity for the unknown. Thus, when I travel, I want to know what a particular place can offer or what I can discover and learn. Thus, traveling for me is always both very educational and fun. It can, however, be stressful at times especially when I’m forced to hurriedly walk quite a distance to catch a connecting flight in such a short time.

This time, however, apart from my desire to bond with our friends, I also wanted to explore and learn more about the conditions of Filipinos who often make up most workers on cruise ships around the world.

I immediately noticed that Norwegian Escape employs many workers from developing countries like India, Indonesia, Columbia, and the Caribbean. However, Filipinos make up most of the crew members. One of the Filipinos I had a casual conversation with as we boarded the ship in Barcelona said that 60% out of the more than 2,000 crew members are Filipinos.

Filipinos work as waiters, cooks, bartenders, cabin stewards, casino staff, photographers, security persons, etc. There are also Filipinos working in administrative and managerial jobs – a testament to what Filipinos can accomplish when given the opportunity. However, I was surprised by the absence of Filipino entertainers on this ship. In most of the cruise ships that my wife and I had taken in the past, Filipino entertainers often drew the biggest crowds because of their musical talents and versatility.

Working on a cruise ship is grueling with just a few hours of rest. According to Jeoffrey, a waiter who hails from Tarlac and who has been with Norwegian Cruise Line (NCL) for seven years, they work for almost ten hours a day and there is not much time to rest after work unlike those in the casino who work night shift.

“I sleep most of the time to rest when given the chance,” explains Jeoffrey. Like many of the Filipinos I talked with who have chosen to work on cruise ships because of a relatively competitive salary, Jeoffrey will again renew his contract for the seventh time because he is saving for his six-year-old son’s educational plan.

John, who is from Lagua and unmarried, says that “mahirap ang trabaho pero masaya.”

Rachel from Isabela echoes the same sentiment, “I am happy with my work.” She has two children in the province that she must support.

For many of the crew members, being away from their families, their parents, their children, their spouses, their boyfriends or girlfriends during the duration of their renewable 6-month contracts is tough. Separation from families is one of the downsides of working on a cruise ship. Homesickness often leads to loneliness. The adjustment period, especially for new workers, is difficult.

Juvy, from Bulacan, and Rose, from Novaliches, both single and new as seafarers, have both adjusted to the rudiments of their respective job. Both miss their boyfriends in the Philippines and are oozing with excitement to see them at the expiration of their renewable contract in a few months.

What the workers do to distract themselves from being too preoccupied with the thoughts of their loved ones is, when the opportunity arises, to go offshore for 2 to 3 hours for a breath of fresh air. Some of them play basketball at night when they are off from work. Others play billiards. Many of them pay for the internet on the ship to be able to chat and bond with their families.

The most notable perks why the Filipinos and others choose to stay on, despite the hard conditions, is the competitive salary.

Anthony, who is from Tondo, has been with NCL for ten years now. His wife is currently stationed on the same ship with him, which he says the company normally allows. The salary, the accommodation, and the free air travel that the company provides make his job the ideal job for him. His two young children are with their grandparents. He and his wife are looking forward to spending time with their kids this Christmas.

Kenneth, who hails from Bacolod, has been working for almost six years now. According to him, the peso equivalent of his monthly salary, which is directly deposited by the company to his bank account in the Philippines, is more or less Php 90,000. His wife is working on the same ship as him. They have a three-year old child who is with their parents.

Michael, a restaurant worker who is from Makati, says, “I’ve been working for six years now and after six years, I was able to buy a house in Cavite. Since I am single, every time I get an increase, it goes to my mother since I have no family. Work is hard, but it pays off.” When the opportune time comes, he plans to move to Canada with his sister.

Being away from your loved ones can be emotionally draining, according to Jonathan who worked for more than ten years in other cruise companies but is in his first contract with NCL after covid. He is from Bohol and has two kids: a 16-year-old teenager and a four-year-old child.

“When I left, my four-year-old, whom I took care of for almost two years because I did not have work due to years of uncertainty caused by covid, was crying. My 16-year-old also did not want to talk to me. It was hard. The pain of separation from my loved ones was real when I left.”

Jonathan’s children are taken care of by their grandparents. Their mom, who used to work in Manila, eventually moved back to their province to be near their children, while working online from home.

Although command of the English language is one of the reasons why Filipinos are hired, they are rewarded with promotions because of their perseverance, adaptability, and excellent work ethic. One such worker is Rudielina.

Rudielina, from Batangas, started as a waitress and is now Assistant Maitre d. Like many of the workers I talked with, for Rudielina, no sacrifice is too great when it comes to her parents and her siblings. Because of her work, she was able to send her younger siblings to school. Consequently, she ended up marrying late at 33 years old and has now three children.

“I have lots of stories to tell about my life, but I have no regrets,” she said with a smile.

Another Filipino we met who rose through the ranks is Alejandro, who is from Cavite. He has been working on cruise ships for 27 years. Alejandro works as a head sommelier in one of NCL Escape’s specialty restaurants. He approached our table with great aplomb as we were having dinner and interacted with us in a very pleasant manner. Friendly and approachable, he shared how his years of sacrifice and hard work have paid off.

“I have three children and two of them have already graduated from college; one to go,” Alejandro proudly said.

The limited number of Filipinos I talked to on the cruise ship had different stories to tell. What is common, however, in their stories is their determination to endure hardships to support their families back home. This diaspora narrative is not new to me. I’ve read about it in numerous newspapers and magazines.

The Filipino diaspora is a phenomenon that will continue to shape the lives of many Filipinos if economic hardship remains unresolved due to bankrupt policies, festering corruption, and incompetence in government.


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