Cruising with OFWs
I used to think that the thousands of overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) who were seamen worked mostly on cargo ships. But some years back when I went on a Mediterranean cruise with friends, I realized that these luxury vessels that offered fun, relaxation and cultural experiences sailed on the sweat of our OFWs.
For almost two weeks now, OFWs have been in the news after the Italian cruise ship Costa Concordia ran aground and keeled over off the coast of Italy on Jan. 13. The ship carried 4,229 tourists from different countries and hundreds of crew members, 229 of them Filipinos, both men and women.
As of last count the number of dead and missing was less than 40, none of them Filipino. The Filipino crew’s courage and dedication will long live in the memory of many survivors whom our OFWs assisted during those terrifying times.
This happening made me recall my own personal experiences with OFWs aboard a cruise ship. I thought that trip was going to be pure relaxation for me but when I saw the countless Filipinos who worked on the ship, I donned my journalist’s hat in between land tours and fun activities on board. I interviewed dozens of OFWs as well as the ship’s officers. Months later, the maiden issue of the Inquirer’s Global Nation section ran my story and photos.
Our OFWs indeed ruled the roost in that cruise ship because of their sheer number and also because of their skills, talent, dependability and graciousness. I was told that Filipinos comprised about 60 percent of the 853-strong crew.
From boiler room to ballroom, from stage to spa, from poolside to pantry, from bar to fine dining. From the belly of the luxury ship to the topmost deck where one could see forever and behold the azure sea and sky of the Mediterranean.
I don’t know if the figures have changed, but in 2005 $1.7 billion of the total $10.8 billion remitted by OFWs came from sea-based OFWs. The number of Filipino seafarers working abroad then was about 250,000 or approximately 20 percent of the world’s total.
The rise in the number of Filipino seamen could be attributed to the inclusion of the Philippines in the International Maritime Organization’s “White List” of 72 accredited countries. Being on the list meant a country continuously complied with the standards required of seamen.
A good number of our sea-based OFWs work on cruise ships. These luxury liners cater to vacation-bound, fun-loving, adventure-seeking humans who work hard and play hard, or who just want to be out of reach and listen to the music of the ocean.
Our ship sailed from Barcelona and back and stopped in several key places on the Mediterranean coasts of Spain, France, Italy, Greece and Turkey. The OFWs working on board were there to help make good things happen. The job is demanding as cruises involve service, hospitality, food, fun, travel, safety and, most of all, people.
I met and interviewed chefs, food servers, spa attendants, bartenders, violinists, guitarists, singers, band members, photographers, engineers. They spoke about their work, earnings and dreams for their families. Eager to please, they even offered to cook for us Filipino dishes not on the menu. They served them to us in the formal dining hall while other nationals cast curious looks on our table.
Homesick as they were, the Filipino crew kept abreast of happenings in the Philippines by printing a daily news digest culled from the Web.
From some of them I did get to know details about the case of a passenger (one of a honeymooning couple) who vanished into the sea while we were sleeping. I fancied myself as mystery writer Jessica Fletcher of “Murder, She Wrote.” Was it suicide, murder or an accident? (Several years later, when the case was featured on the “Oprah” show, I couldn’t help exclaiming, “I was there when it happened!”)
The American cruise director had only good words for the Filipinos. “They are so talented and they learn very quickly,” he said. “They’re great workers.”
The debonair Greek ship captain, a seasoned sea voyager for 33 years, told me that he had been working with Filipinos since the 1980s. He said: “They get along well with other nationalities. They are very educated and they are a happy lot.”
Whether it was instructing on wine tasting, giving beauty massages, serving at formal dinners, making omelets at the breakfast buffet, playing music, snapping photos amid the Greek ruins, ensuring security and swiping cards at entry and exit points, disposing of garbage or keeping staterooms clean, Filipino seamen and women were doing their best. I thought, why not a Filipino guest chaplain or even a morgue attendant?
The least seen but perhaps the most important because they made the ship sail the distances were those who worked in the belly of the ship or the engine room. Our lives were in their hands. I was allowed to descend to the hard hat area where I met some of the Filipino engineers who were a cheerful lot.
Life for the OFWs on board these cruise ships is surely not problem-free, as life anywhere is not. Are the OFWs on these so-called floating four-star, five-star hotels better off than those in cargo ships and oil tankers? What lies beyond those glittering nights and sunny days at sea? What awaits them in their homeland?
A question I couldn’t help asking: Don’t they feel resentful when they see food and drink flowing endlessly, people having so much fun and spending money for this kind of voyage, while they, the OFWs, work hard to keep these tourists thrilled? And while they pine for home?
“Oh no,” said a food server without a tinge of resentment. “Many of these passengers have worked hard, too. And because of them we have our jobs. Someday we, too, could enjoy something like this.”
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