We were delighted to welcome former seafarer Marville Espago to ISWAN as our new Regional Manager in the Philippines in June. In this interview, Marville shares more about his background in the maritime industry and what issues he wants to tackle to help seafarers in the Philippines.
Welcome, Marville! Tell us about yourself and what motivated you to pursue a career in the charity sector.
By practice, I am a seafarer. I boarded my last ship in the rank of Second Officer. As Second Officer, you are responsible for driving the ship and you are also the medical officer and the navigation officer, so I planned the routes and how we would get to the next port.
I graduated from a maritime academy in 2012 but I didn’t practise seafaring right away. I went into social work first and spent two years in community outreach. After those two years, I realised I needed to work for my family, so I went back to my shipping company and asked if I could go on board. I worked at sea on and off from 2014 up until 2019.
When the pandemic happened, I was supposed to go back on board in early 2020 but the first lockdown in the Philippines came into force in March, so the plans were postponed. My passport and seaman’s book were due to expire by the end of the year, so I wasn’t able to go back on board and ventured into other opportunities on land instead.
I have dabbled in a few things in the maritime industry. Maritime education was one – I taught maritime communication in a college. Another was educational technology, where I worked with schools to develop their learning resources for cadets.
During the pandemic, I volunteered with AMOSUP, going door to door to bring relief goods to seafarers. On one occasion, a crew member asked me to go to his place even though a visit was not scheduled for that day. He was insistent, so we went to his house after our last visit of the day. When I met him, his lips were dry and he was not wearing any shoes, and his house was bare with no furniture. He was burdened by the pandemic and not really making ends meet. That image has been vivid to me up until now and is one of the reasons I am passionate about a Just Transition. Seafarers need to be ready for any type of scenario. That’s also one of the reasons I am very passionate about maritime welfare, which is why I took the opportunity to apply for this job at ISWAN.
You have joined ISWAN as our Regional Manager in the Philippines. In your opinion, what are the most critical issues affecting seafarers in this region?
In the Philippines, there is still a stigma around mental health and this affects how shipping companies react to or deal with it. I have a seafaring friend who was diagnosed with depression and his company terminated his contract without any interventions or programmes to support him. He was without a job for a year and it really affected him. I think maritime stakeholders should deal with mental health issues more sensitively and with much more compassion. ISWAN has programmes in place for tackling this, such as our Maritime Mental Health Awareness (MMHA) training.
Another issue is the lack of career development opportunities in the Philippines. Seafarers need to be prepared for future change, and the maritime industry should remind them to upskill themselves and ensure they are not disposable. Just Transition is a critical issue being raised by a lot of labour unions because the shipping industry is becoming more automated and technological, and seafarers need to be able to prove their competency in handling this change.
Finally, there are some negative connotations around seafaring as a career in the Philippines relating to the level of skill required or the effects on families left behind, so I think the Filipino seafarer ‘brand’ needs to be improved. Seafaring is not just manual labour – it requires technical knowledge and skill – and in my experience, the first thing a seafarer does in port is to look for a WiFi connection to contact their families, but many people do not know or understand this. I think we need to raise the profile of seafarers and make their voices heard.
What have you been doing at ISWAN since you joined back in June?
I have mainly been responding to cases referred by ISWAN’s helpline team, but my role at ISWAN is also to build working relationships with maritime stakeholders like government agencies and labour unions so we can signpost seafarers to the right sources of support. I am also working with ISWAN’s International Operations Manager Chirag Bahri on family outreach and collaborating with the rest of ISWAN’s international team to raise awareness of ISWAN’s programmes among seafarers.
I joined the rest of ISWAN’s team in the Philippines at the ITF Seafarers’ Expo in Manila on the weekend of Day of the Seafarer (25th June). We had around 2,000 visitors to ISWAN’s booth over the course of the three days, including seafarers who had previously been supported by ISWAN through our helpline and came to thank our team. As I was new to the organisation, it was nice to see the impact of what we do.
Which part of your role are you most looking forward to?
I am particularly looking forward to assisting with more cases from ISWAN’s helpline service as I like the on-the-ground work directly helping seafarers. I would also like to work on raising the profile of seafarers in the Philippines – perhaps sharing their stories on our pages – and increase awareness of ISWAN in this region.