About Me

A slightly over-educated sailor sharing the wet and dry sides of his life.

Saturday, July 04, 2009

Monkey Radio and Other Related Issues

Friday, June 19, 2009
12:40 AM

Monkey Radio
Once again, back in my stateroom after watch. This morning (or was it last night?) was the beginning of "Monkey Radio." It usually starts about a day or two from Europe and continues through to the north end of the South China Sea. Either earlier this year or late last year, NPR had a brief piece on this phenomenon. It was part of a series on the Somalia pirates. Well, as a merchant seaman, I have to state that NPR failed to convey the reality. Monkey Radio actually is no more than racial slurs, over vessel radio, directed towards Philippine mariners.

First, I must offer some foreground this issue: Filipinos comprise a considerable percent of the global number of merchant seafarers--perhaps even the majority. However, the problematic aspect is that, in the corporate pursuit of lower wages, shipping companies have re-flagged their ships to nations that offer very low tax burdens. Additionally, this provides the companies the opportunity to staff their ships with third-world labor--from top to bottom. To this, they have found that Filipinos provide a fairly passive ("cooperative" is the term the companies have used in description) labor force that will accept sub-standard labor practices that the companies' own populations would refuse on humanitarian grounds. For instance, Filipinos often accept two or more year contracts to serve aboard a ship, with no opportunity to take time off to visit home, and receive little to no pay until the end of their time on ship. Should a sailor quit, they have to surrender their earnings. Of course, such a contract would be illegal in most developed countries; however, it is unlikely the average Filipino has access to legal representation that will allow recovery of earnings. Also, once a sailor reaches his 40's, he is no longer accepted for work through the many hiring agencies found in his own country. The hiring practices favor the companies by minimizing their liability for the health and welfare of the sailors.

In the end, Filipinos are exploited. This is clearly evident in the numbers of these sailors stranded in Somalia, after their ships have been seized by pirates. To date, well over 300 Filipinos are languishing in Somalia, waiting for someone to raise their ransom. This is something that probably will not happen, as the only people with that kind of money was their employers--a lot that obviously have abandoned them at this point. To say the least, their families do not have that kind of money. If they had, these men would not have taken the job.

To continue: In the face of this so-called "outsourcing" of jobs (in the maritime industry, we call it "scabbing-out"), it is not surprising that a level of resentment exists against Filipino mariners. However, it would be foolish to dodge the issue of racism. Ironically, the closer to the lower rungs of scab labor, the worse the racism gets. It is said that, once you're off the coast of India, you're scraping the bottom of the barrel. The abuse passed between Indians and Filipinos is appalling. It starts generically and is similar to this: "Filipino monkey... Filipino monkey?" The reply: "Fuck you! You're the monkey!" The generic counter reply: "Filipino monkey like a ba-na-na?" The scorched-earth reply: "Indian monkey, I eat your god."

Probably the most cold-blooded piece of abuse I ever heard was one without words. If I recall correctly, it was back in 1991, and I was on a car carrier transiting the English Channel. As always, it started over channel 16, the frequency strictly reserved for ship-to-ship hailing (you first establish contact with another ship and then switch to another channel) and emergency communication. I heard what I recognized as tiny cymbals banging together: "Ching-ching-ching-ching-ching-ching-ching-ching..." I was initially confused as to the source of this noise. Suddenly, I realized it was one of those wind-up toy chimps. Ouch!

But I have been offered correction about my assumption that all this abuse comes from non-Filipinos. Apparently, there are some Filipinos who engage in this behavior--just to see if they can piss-off one of their own countrymen. This was related to me by 3rd Mate Wes. He had sailed with an elderly Filipino, who once sailed as a mate on the foreign flag ships but found better pay as an able seaman on U.S. ships. This sailor discerned that a particular antagonist was really a Filipino. He then got on the radio (with permission, of course) and informed the other person that he was shaming his own people and should stop this kind of behavior.

I couldn't agree more. Not like it's an "Uncle Tom" kind of a thing, but it's more about being aware that you and your people are striving to better themselves against a lot of adversity. If there are individuals who are giving cause to your oppressors, then behavior that gives fuel to the fire must stop. There's no point in engaging the monkey business. As someone who is half-Japanese and grew up through some of the residual post-WWII anti-Japanese sentiment of the 60's and 70's, I can attest to this one thing: Individual pride is one thing, but respecting your own dignity and that of others is another. The energy spent defending your own pride can easily fuel an unending cycle of vengeance.

Perhaps, in one sense, this is what lies at the nexus of "Monkey Radio." It's sad to see a corner of the maritime world where people at the lowest economic rungs are tearing at each other. You see what all this outsourcing of labor does? It's like wealthy members of the Klan pitting poor whites against poor blacks. So long as the have-nots are fighting between themselves for intentionally discarded crumbs, the haves are able to exploit the situation for a profit by alternating favor and disfavor between the two impoverished groups and keep them from realizing their common cause.

So why is there this animosity between the Indians and the Filipinos? It's because these two English-as-second-language groups see each other in competition for what they don't realize are the lowest paying jobs in the industry. Nearly all shipping companies from developed nations have jettisoned their own nation's people in favor of labor from poorer countries. And are these third-world people getting paid at the same standard of living as the previous, developed nation seafarers? Of course not. Meanwhile, they get to see their families for only a little while between their contracts. And they live sad and lonely lives at sea, seething on the inside, and hating what most resembles them.

No comments: