One third of all seafarers on international vessels are from the Philippines
Perils of being taken hostage or killed by pirates a very real threat
Those who have survived hostage situation say they will return to the sea
Pay for sailors is far higher than for many in the Philippines
It was over seven months ago, but Antonio Plaza Orozco clearly remembers when he was struck by the butt of the AK-47 and feeling the heat of the gunman’s breath as he hissed: “I will cut your neck, I will throw you overboard.”
Orozco was the senior crewman aboard the Mattheos 1 when it was boarded by nearly a dozen pirates off the west coast of Africa.
When the leader of the pirates asked for the highest ranking crewman, Orozco stepped forward only to be kicked and beaten. Orozco, who had been a seafarer for 22 of his 52 years of life, believed he was about to die.
For eleven days the multi-national crew of 25, including 14 Filipinos, were held hostage, but thankfully their lives were spared.
During those difficult days Orozco thought back to a simple eight-hour training course he took at the Philippine Transmarine Carriers.
The course was a simple one involving simulations and classroom sessions that focused on dangers at sea, including surviving a hostage situation.
That course is mandatory for all seafarers by the Philippine government. A third of all international seafarers are Filipino, which also makes them the largest group of hostages at sea.
“I remember, make friends with (the pirates),” says Orozco. “Don’t make war. Be friends with them.
“Everyday I say, ‘My brother, my brother, please don’t kill us. Please, I have family also. My son is in school.’ One of the pirates, I think he’s a Christian, so we make a bible study.”
Those odd moments of a Catholic hostage studying the bible with his pirate captor, is what Orozco believes led to his and his crew’s survival. On September 24th, eleven days after their ordeal began, the pirates took as much cargo and money as they could carry and took off.
Orozco credits the anti-piracy course for his survival, but the Philippine Seafarer’s Union, the country’s second largest union of seafarers, says the course is simply not enough.
“Anti-piracy training is not totally the solution,” said union head Melchor Villanueva.
The union believes what’s really needed is a naval escort or private armed security on-board. The union readily admits the Philippine’s navy is too poorly financed to even consider a naval escort for every citizen at sea, but wants the vessels’ country of origin to provide the protection.
The union knows that it’s an empty call to action, asking other governments to protect foreign workers aboard ships in international waters. What the union won’t do is urge its members to stop working at sea, even in the regions where pirates readily take seafarers hostage.
The reason is that life at sea pays far better than a job on Philippine soil: 40% of Filipinos live on less than two dollars a day, while the starting salary for seafarers like Orozco is $1,500 a month.
Thirty-year-old Reydomingo Nuval was on the same ship as Orozco, and says he will go back to sea because he needs to support his family.
“Going abroad as a Filipino, it’s better. The salary there, we cannot find here. So by going abroad, you can easily build up your dreams, have a house, own a car, support your family and send your kids to a good school.”
“If I get hurt, it’s a part of life,” he adds.