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Exploited Filipino Seafarers Share the Irish Struggle

Workers stuck in the Port of Cork with no end in sight.


By Róisín Dubh

Associate Editor, Iskra Books


While Irish headlines rage about the massive amounts of cocaine found in a cargo ship off the coast of Cork—speculating on which drug lord family it may have belonged to—the newspapers have not been addressing the twenty people, who, at the time of this being published, are still on board the ship.

Those twenty people are Filipino. Why are they so far from the Philippines? Why are they refusing to leave the ship? The answers, as we will see, are complicated. We will also see how those in the Philippines often face the same issues we do, here in Ireland.

In 1974, the Philippines, under the Marcos dictatorship, put into place the Labour Export Policy (LEP). This policy codified, and even encouraged, Filipinos to emigrate from their homes.

Facing severe poverty and unemployment at home, over a million Filipinos each year feel it is easier to work abroad and send money back to their families in the Philippines. This year, the current Filipino dictator, Ferdinand "Bongbong" Romualdez Marcos Jr.—son of the architect of the LEP—continued his support for his father’s policy, thereby plunging the Philippines into further economic crisis, pushing more Filipinos off their land.

Much like the Enclosures, the LEP is a way for the Filipino government to clear the land for multinational corporations to come in and to build their factories. The jobs provided by these corporations bring in nothing but poverty wages, further exacerbating the issue.

Due to poverty wages, many Filipino men turn to seafaring work—much like the Filipinos on board the cargo ship in Cork. This type of work offers little to no labour protection, and workers are lucky if they are paid on time—pay which in most cases is sent home to the workers’ families.

In 2022, seafarers sent home €6.3 billion. [1]

Conditions on board the ships can also be quite awful. As stated in one article about the Cork cargo ship, the conditions are “old and grotty.” [2] And, further, many Filipino workers face issues of racism and violence while on ship.

Sea work is very precarious. Filipino seafarers compete with many others for ongoing work after a tour of duty is completed. If a Filipino worker speaks out against questionable labour practices, they can be blacklisted and will not get re-hired by other seafaring agencies.

The workers on the Cork ship could be fearful of this potential blacklisting if they leave the ship. When back in the Philippines, if these seafarers wanted to organize a trade union, for example, they would be faced with brutal repression from the Marcos Jr. regime. Trade union activists are routinely disappeared, tortured, and even murdered by the Marcos Jr. government, as with the most recent case of the September 29th murder of the trade unionist, Jude Fernandez, of the Kilusang Mayo Uno labor center. [3]

However, despite all these obstacles, Filipino workers' movements continue to grow, along with the wider people’s movement for justice and for a lasting peace in the Philippines.

The Irish population is facing a similar struggle. While Ireland does not have an official Labour Export Policy, there is in fact an unofficial encouragement to leave. We can observe this in the numerous news articles and media pieces discussing the Irish workers who have moved abroad and how “great” they have it. We can feel it in the cost-of-living crisis, specifically the housing crisis.

Where can the Irish live which is both available and affordable?

Thousands of young people are leaving the country in search of a place of their own; a place they can afford. The Irish government says they have their hands tied, yet they allow multi-national corporations to come in and to receive enormous tax breaks—so much so that Ireland is considered a tax haven for these corporations.

For a country that produced so many great trade unionists, like Jim Larkin and James Connolly, Ireland’s labour laws are flimsy at best. This can be seen in the current trade union dispute between the Iceland chain grocery store workers and Iceland’s owner. With wages withheld, Irish courts have not compelled Iceland’s owner to pay monies owed to the workers, even months after the company was put into receivership. To-date, Iceland’s workers are still waiting for payment, and are now calling for a national boycott of all stores in the chain.

While it may seem that the Philippines is a world away from Ireland, the working class of both countries face similar issues—being pushed out of our countries and horrific labour conditions.

The Irish people know too well the trauma of mass emigration, with the Great Famine seeing over one million Irish being forced to flee from their homeland. Due to this shared pain, the Irish people should support their fellow Filipino workers in their labour fight, the right to live on their own land, and the right to organize without fear of government retaliation.

If you would like to learn more about Filipino seafarers, the documentary, Turbulent Waters, is essential viewing.





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