Friday, March 13, 2009

OFWs: From belly of luxury ship to top deck

By Ma. Ceres P. Doyo - Philippine Daily Inquirer
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.

Overseas Filipino workers (OFW) rule the roost, so to speak, aboard the cruise ship Brilliance of the Seas because of their sheer number and also because of their skills, talent, dependability and graciousness. Filipinos comprise about 60 percent of the 853-strong crew that is composed of 51 nationalities.

“Here I earn the combined salaries of four teachers and three security guards in the Philippines,” reveals Jerry Dioneo, 36, who works in the dining section. Dioneo who hails from Silay City in Negros Occidental has been on the ship for about three years and is on his fourth contract. Only the Filipino nationals, Dioneo adds, are compelled to allot and remit 20 percent of their earnings to their folks back home. This is stipulated in their contracts.

And what is work like on cruise days? “Every day here is a Monday,” Dioneo chirps as he replenishes the cornucopia of food for the guests.

Victoriano Camacho, 46, of Calamba, Laguna, has been with the cruise company for 16 years and is now the sous chef (assistant of the executive chef). He started out at the Nikko Hotel in Makati. Now he earns $2,600 a month.

$1.7 billion of the total $10.8 billion remitted by OFWs in 2005 came from the sea-based OFWs. The number of Filipino seafarers working abroad as of 2005, is about 250,000 or approximately 20 percent of the world’s total.

‘White List’

The rise in the number 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 means the country has continuously complied with the standards required for competent seafarers.

Being a Filipino seaman or seafarer does not necessarily mean working in cargo ships sailing drearily on a gray sea and being cooped up, fighting ennui until land appears on the horizon. A good number of the sea-based OFWs work in cruise ships. These luxury liners cater to vacation-bound, fun-loving, adventure-seeking humans, people who work hard and play hard, or who just want to be out of reach and listen to the music of the ocean, heeding the cruise logo catchphrase that says, “Get out there.” One could also choose to get holed up in the ship’s library.

The three-year-old German-built Brilliance of the Seas belongs to a fleet of cruise ships of the Royal Caribbean International (RCI) that sails in Europe, North America and the Caribbean. It has a passenger capacity of 2,500.

The Filipino seamen and women working on board are 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.

Earning from tips

Bar server Vergie Mompil, an education course graduate, has spent eight years working on several cruise ships. Her husband, Edwin Vicero also works in another cruise ship, Jewels of the Sea.

Those in food service are not paid the fixed salary rate that workers in other sections receive. Food and drink servers like Vergie receive only $50 per 12-day cruise but the tips (provided for in the bill) earn her about $1,000. Two cruises per month or more than ten cruises in a six-month contract mean a lot when remitted to the Philippines. “After six months, we go on a two-month break,” Vergie adds.

Vergie is stationed at the bar in the main lobby ballroom at the foot of a luminous stairway where guests in formal wear linger to chat or dance to music provided mainly by—you guessed it—Filipino musicians.

Vergie and her husband have a three-year-old child who is being cared for by two aunts. The couple is building a home south of Manila and planning for a hardware store.

Not everyone is in the direct employ of RCI. Hoffman Roscano, 27, married, works as a photographer of a photo agency that operates aboard the ship. He and several photographers have their hands full during formal dinners and evening activities as well as land tours. During special occasions, they set up a mini studio where guests in their glittering “Titanic” finery could go for a formal shoot. Guests snap up the photos the morning after. Roscano also receives commissions from the sales.

‘Better than 5-star salary’

Karen del Carmen, in her 20s, works as a beauty therapist in the Brilliance Day Spa operated by an agency. A tourism graduate of a college in Bacolod, she had a work stint in a hotel in the Philippines after which she applied in a maritime agency. The spa company hired her and sent her to London for training.

“Better than a five-star salary,” is how del Carmen describes what she earns. After every 12-day cruise she gets two days off. “It’s fun working here,” she says as she looks up from her desk in the spa’s lavender-scented receiving area.

Nights are busy for the musicians who play in different venues aboard the ship. John Neri, 24, regales the night owls with violin music. As a child he studied music under a scholarship program for the musically gifted.

Neri met his wife in another cruise ship. Married for four years now, the couple is building a house in Kalookan City.

‘Oye como va’

Although now US-based, Vicky Gallarde of Vicky and The Holding Company band still calls the Philippines home. It’s a rollicking night when the band plays for a crowd with itchy feet.

Vicky switches without a hitch from lusty “Amor, amor, amor” to a staccato “Oye como va” while husband Chris and the rest segue from rhumba to disco beat. The band is a ship mainstay.

The couple has a room for two of their own at the crew quarters. The standard rooms for two for the crew have TVs and computers with e-mail capabilities. The Filipinos also have a daily two-page news digest called “Philippines Today.” There is a bar as well as games and exercise facilities.

Edgardo Villarino, 42, studied music in the University of the Philippines and sang with the UP Concert Chorus. He is married with three kids. The Inquirer chanced upon Villarino playing soothing classic guitar music by the poolside.

He was in the Caribbean several months earlier and he remembers the day a hurricane blew around there. There are less “sea days” in the Mediterranean, he says, meaning, the ship docks often in tourist havens.

Selling the Philippines

On his fifth contract now, Villarino says their own families could enjoy cruise privileges when there is space available. And could the entertainers have some fun during the day? “If there are less than five guests using the pool, we could take a dip,” Villarino says.

He dreams of cruises on Philippine waters that could rival those elsewhere. “We try to advertise the Philippines. Subic is so beautiful.” He talks of an island in Haiti that Royal Caribbean had developed.

Great workers

Bill Brunkhorst, American cruise director who makes sure entertainment is at its peak, has only good words for the Filipinos. “They are so talented and they learn very quickly,” he says. “They’re great workers.”

The Greek ship captain Michael Lachtaridis, a seasoned sea voyager who has been sailing the seas for 33 years says he has been working with Filipinos since the 1980s. “They get along well with other nationalities,” he says. “They are very educated and they are a happy lot.”

Whether it is instructing on wine tasting, giving beauty massages, serving at formal dinners, making omelets at the buffet breakfast, playing music, snapping photos amidst the Greek ruins, ensuring security and swiping cards at entry and exit points, disposing garbage or keeping staterooms clean, Filipino seamen and women are doing their best. And why not a Filipino guest chaplain or morgue attendant?

The least seen

The least seen but perhaps the most important because they make the ship sail the distances are those who work in the belly of the ship or the engine room. The lives of those on board are practically in the hands of these experts in ship engineering.

The Inquirer descended to the grime-free hard hat area and met some of the Filipinos there. Jessie Hervilla, Estefanio Joel, Steve Flores, Ramon Cerio, Percival Dilag and so many more. Chief Junior Engineer Rasmus Norling of Sweden has only high praises for the men who are seldom seen on deck.

But 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 their counterparts in cargo ships and oil tankers? What lies beyond those glittering nights and sunny days at sea? What awaits them in their homeland? What awaits Edward Pampis, Joselito Benito, Cipertino Apil, Arlene Salon, Susan Gatmaitan, Arthur Pernia, Julius, Mijares, Juanito Embolori, Edwin Miranda, Enrico Sabido, Victor Amuyang, Ronaldo Carreon, Ernita Villanueva, George Tardo, Joselito Benito…

Don’t they feel resentful when they see food and drink flowing endlessly, people having so much fun and spending so much money for this kind of voyage, while they work so hard to keep these people thrilled and while the pine for home?

“Oh no,” says a food server without a tinge of resentment. “Many of them have worked hard too. And because of them we have our jobs. Someday we too could enjoy something like this.”

This Inquirer reporter was a regular paying guest on this cruise. The ship sailed from Barcelona and back and stopped in several key places on the Mediterranean coasts of Spain, France, Italy, Greece and Turkey.


cruise ship jobs said...

jobs on cruises are one of the best jobs out there as it is a great way to earn good money and travel the world for free at the same time.

Caribbean Cruise said...

Nice post. I enjoyed the reading. My friend was in Caribbean cruise thorough easyclicktravel. I saw her photos, it is amazing vacation for the family.

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