By MALLORY GRUBEN
From a couch bolted to the galley floor of the cargo ship Neptune Island, Alfredo Nartea Jr. passes a microphone to Jessie Braverman. Nartea is a wiper (cleaner) on a crew of 21 Filipino seafarers whose ship is docked at the Glacier Northwest/CalPortland cement terminal in the Willamette River. On May 4, while most of his coworkers cleaned cement residue from the cargo hold, Nartea used his day off from watching over the engine room for karaoke.
He had just finished his performance and queued a song in the Tagalog language for Braverman, who’s visiting the ship as chair of the Pacific Coast Coalition for Seafarers. After some hesitation, Braverman takes the mic for a quiet sing-along. When she falters, a half dozen seafarers chime in to help between bites of stir fry on their 30-minute dinner break from 12-hour shifts.
Braverman hopes her performance will build trust — enough that Nartea or his shipmates might later tell her about their working conditions. And if the workers decide to take action, her coalition might be able to help. Pacific Coast Coalition for Seafarers is a grassroots activist group linked to human rights, migrant, and labor organizations. It provides supplies to seafarers and supports them when they try to improve their workplaces. It also organizes ship visits and hosts educational events about the struggles of seafarers.
Braverman, 29, is a volunteer at the Filipino Bayanihan Center, a community and resource center for Filipino families in Portland that is part of the Pacific Coast Coalition for Seafarers.
“Really, our vision is to create solidarity between workers on land and sea,” Braverman told the Labor Press. “We are focused on building worker-to-worker solidarity and supporting the struggles for seafarers to fight and demand for their own rights.”
The Pacific Coast Coalition for Seafarers launched in June 2020 after human rights and migrant advocacy groups like the grassroots Portland Committee for Human Rights in the Philippines learned about seafarers who’d been stuck on ships amid the global pandemic. Shipping companies were keeping them well past their 10-month contracts.
International regulations safeguarding seafarers’ rights are loose. Shipping companies use crews from the developing world and register their ships in countries with weak labor laws like Panama, Liberia, or the Bahamas. The Neptune Island is registered in Hong Kong.
International Transport Workers Federation (ITF), a global union federation, conducts ship inspections to make sure companies are complying with international regulations. In 70 years of campaigning against “flags of convenience,” ITF inspectors have frequently discovered seafarers working long hours for low wages in poor on-board conditions without adequate food and clean drinking water. ITF says seafarers are often denied proper rest breaks, leading to stress and fatigue. ITF also reports that wage theft is common, as is retaliation for workers who try to stand up to bad bosses.
Josh Goodwin, vice president of Vancouver-based International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) Local 4, said he’s heard stories of captains who threaten to blacklist seafarers from getting jobs in the future. Local longshore workers partner with ITF and now the Pacific Coast Coalition for Seafarers to help seafarers in trouble. Goodwin is Local 4’s liaison to the Pacific Coast Coalition for Seafarers.
Seafarers are also frequently denied “shore leave” — time to get off the ship when it’s at dock. Kevin Amahan, a 24-year-old deckhand on the Neptune Island, told the Labor Press that U.S. border patrol agents wouldn’t let him off the ship in Portland, even though he has a U.S. visa, and they wouldn’t give him a good reason why. Braverman said she and other coalition volunteers have heard multiple stories like his.
Despite hardships, ITF reports that it’s rare for seafarers to complain. That may be because speaking up could risk their jobs and affect their families; many seafarers send a portion of their wages back home.
Amahan said he makes about $600 a month. He said back home in Antique, Philippines, it would take his father, a fisherman, almost three months of nonstop work to match that.
Nartea, the wiper, told the Labor Press that he wanted to cry at the start of his first contract. As his bed slid across the floor when big waves hit the ship, he missed his family. But every paycheck he receives made it easier to continue, he joked. More to the point, his family depends on the money he sends home. Nartea started his second 10-month contract in March.
‘There to back them up’
Most of the coalition’s work happens through ship visits like the one Braverman took May 4 to the Neptune Island. She’s one of a handful of coalition members with a Transportation Worker Identification Credential, or TWIC card, that gives her clearance from the U.S. Transportation Security Agency to enter secure maritime facilities and vessels. She also has to get permission from port security, the agent of the ship, and the captain of the ship before she can board.
“There’s so many barriers and hoops for us to jump through, but as PCCS we’ve been able to get access to the port, so we are able to bring a few volunteers with us every time to get on board,” Braverman said.
When she can, Braverman likes to take union members aboard with her. In mid-May, she brought three Portland Public Schools custodians represented by SEIU Local 503 Sublocal 140.
The seafarers Braverman meets tend not to complain about their jobs. Instead, they show hospitality. They invite the visitors to dinner in the galley. They host karaoke sessions. They swap Facebook friend requests.
“But those visits do really help with the relationship and trust building, so we can follow up with them after in more private settings,” Braverman said.
Sometimes seafarers will reach out later on messaging apps to tell coalition volunteers when a problem comes up. About a year ago, a group of seafarers asked the coalition to provide COVID vaccines. They told Braverman they’d been asking their captain for shore leave to get vaccinated, but he had brushed them off and would leave port before they could get to a clinic. Crew members decided to go over the captain’s head and write a letter to the shipping company that owned the vessel. At a seafarer’s request, Pacific Coast Coalition for Seafarers signed onto the letter and agreed to coordinate an on-board vaccination clinic when the ship docked in Portland.
The coalition’s work overlaps with work done by the ITF and ILWU, which have helped seafarers for decades. ITF ship inspections help ensure companies are following global regulations, paying their seafarers, and providing suitable working conditions on the ship. In February it won $75,000 of missing wages and protection from retaliation for a group of Burmese seafarers docked in Tacoma. ILWU members, meanwhile, have been known to stop work— and cost a shipping company money by delaying its travel timeline — to protest unfair working conditions on behalf of seafarers. But where ITF and ILWU apply pressure to get ship owners to comply with regulations, Pacific Coast Coalition for Seafarers hopes through one-on-one contact that it can encourage grassroots organizing among seafarers.
“It’s just traditional organizing, trying to get people to believe that we can’t do anything individually, but we can do it together,” Goodwin said. “Solidarity wins the day.”
Find out MORE Pacific Coast Coalition for Seafarers will host an educational webinar about seafarers 6-7 p.m. June 26, for International Day of the Seafarer. For details visit facebook.com/PCCSeafarers