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  • Writer's pictureSeattle Seafarers Center

The Importance of Advocacy for Seafarers

Monday morning, I checked our office phone and found several missed calls from a seafarer. Let’s call him “John.” John had also sent us messages on WhatsApp - “Pls help” … “It’s an emergency maam/sir.” Rich and I got a hold of him on the phone, and he explained that he had been injured on his ship and was at the hospital in Seattle. He still needed additional surgery, but he was about to be discharged and flown home to the Philippines without a plan yet in place for his medical care. He wanted to stay in Seattle for his remaining care. Was there anything we could do to help?

We later learned that John had been injured while using a high pressure water gun to clean the ship’s hold. This is a very powerful tool that is often used to remove paint or rust from the ship. As the intense force of the water gun can cause a recoil, it holds a high risk for injury. In John’s case, his crewmate’s water gun had recoiled from the pressure and the metal handle hit John in the face, shattering several bones and also injuring his right eye. The accident occurred while their ship was underway, a good distance off the coast of Alaska. The crew provided basic medical care, but John had to wait about a week until they arrived in Seattle and he was taken to the hospital. 

John was distressed when he called us. He was worried that if he did not receive his remaining medical care here in Seattle, his face would heal improperly and be permanently deformed. His injury was very complicated and he still required additional surgery, including rebuilding one of his tear ducts. His right eye was completely swollen shut and the doctors would not know the state of his vision or what further care was needed until the swelling was reduced. To make matters even more complicated, John did not have a US visa. He had been provided a temporary parole by customs to be in the US, but that would expire in a couple days, before his follow-up appointment.

The decision to keep John in Seattle or send him home to the Philippines was not dependent upon one person, but on several different agencies. Each ship visiting the US has a local shipping agent, who usually contracts with an outside insurance company whenever medical care is needed for crewmembers. In this case, the insurance company was responsible both for arranging crew medical care and for the shipping company’s risk management. Competing interests? Definitely. And so the ultimate decision about John’s medical care was based not just on the guidance from John’s doctor, but also on how the foreign ship owner wanted to proceed. And keeping John at a highly-ranked hospital in Seattle with a 24-hour guard since he had no visa would definitely be more expensive to the company than flying him home to the Philippines for further care.

We got in touch with Cyrus, our representative from the ITF (International Transport Workers’ Federation), who we partner with to advocate for seafarers. Cyrus, Rich and I spent the afternoon on the phone with John, his shipping agent, the insurance company, and his doctor, trying to figure out what would need to happen in order for him to stay in Seattle. 

Eventually, they decided to keep John in Seattle at least until his follow-up appointment. He was so relieved (and so were we). Rich and I visited John at the hospital that evening. It was good to meet him in-person and check on how he was doing. He was very young, and I imagine it must have been scary to be injured, in a different country, on his own, and have almost no control over the course of his medical care. The next day, he was discharged to a hotel where he would wait until the swelling went down for his follow-up appointment. We visited him there as well. He had 2 guards who shifted off watching him around the clock, and stayed in his hotel room with him. Luckily, John got along well with the guards, who also spoke Tagalog. But why did he need to be guarded 24/7? Customs and Border Protection must follow the rule that a person on parole due to lack of visa has to be guarded, but this adds to the complexity, cost, and sense of isolation for the seafarer. John was even worried that he would be shackled when they eventually flew him home. It was doubtful he would try to escape - one eye swollen shut, the other barely able to open, and awaiting further medical care.

John’s ship reached port on Friday, and I got to visit his crewmates and hear more about what happened. They were all concerned for John and were glad to hear he was doing okay. A few of the crew had visas and so we arranged for our volunteer, Fr. Mac to take them the next day to visit John in his hotel room. John really appreciated the visit. Some of the crew also wanted to go to church, so another volunteer took them to mass on Sunday. Since not all of the crew could get off the ship, Fr. Mac also led a mass service onboard. 

Sunday afternoon, we received an update from John - “My flight is today at 1800. Thank you so much for all the help. Hope to see you again. God bless.” Rich got on the phone with the insurance company - Why was John being flown home? Wasn’t the plan to have his follow-up care and surgeries in Seattle? What was the reason for this last-minute change?

We didn’t get a full answer, but learned that the doctor had approved John to travel, the shipping company had decided to send him home, and the insurance company was working on arranging medical care for him in the Philippines. John would be flying economy, with an overnight layover in Istanbul, and no accompaniment. 

We have continued to stay in touch with John since he arrived back in the Philippines. The ITF is also checking in on him to make sure he receives all the medical care he needs. He is due for at least two more surgeries, and his recovery will likely take several months.

This incident highlighted so many challenges that seafarers face: difficult and dangerous work conditions, workplace injuries, minimal access to medical care, a lack of shore leave, the lack of dignity and freedom in their treatment by the US when they do not hold a visa, and having important decisions about their lives be in the hands of other agencies, who have competing interests in the decisions they make. It also highlights the important and delicate work of advocating for the needs of seafarers, who do so much to bring the goods we use to make our lives better, but who often lack the rights and protections under the law that we enjoy in this country.

Reflection from Julia Cooper and Rich Shively

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