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Seafarers in the port of Houston avoid medical care for fear of retaliation, new study says

Workplace injuries and at-sea sickness are often left untreated in a job rife with occupational hazards.

Florian Martin/Houston Public Media
View of the Port of Houston with the downtown skyline in the back.

New research from the University of Texas Medical Branch found that Filipino seafarers — who make up a third of the workforce that transports goods from around the world into the Port of Houston — often avoid or delay medical care when they get injured or sick for fear of workplace retaliation.

The research, which was done through interviews with seafarers in the Gulf of Mexico, found many Filipino seafarers seek off-the-books medical care.

“It’s the question of ‘how far can I go without seeking medical care through US hospitals and clinics?,'” said Shannon Guillot Wright, the author of the paper documenting these experiences. “‘Can I call the second officer’s wife who is a nurse? Can I treat this burn myself? Are there antibiotics on board if my thumb gets cut off in machinery.'”

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The interviewed workers repeatedly mentioned the risk of getting fired or passed over for future contracts if they wanted to see a doctor. That's because laws like Maintenance and Cure, The Jones Act and the International Maritime Labour Convention places the responsibility of healthcare costs or workplace injuries on employers.

"Most shipowners don’t want to send the crew to the hospital or the clinic (in the U.S.) because of the cost," said Shwe Tun Aung, a union representative of the Seafarer International Union of North America based in Houston. "So they try to hold the crew here. They don’t let them get the medical attention they need. They think if the ship goes to the next country, a cheaper place."

If a worker is docked in the Port of Houston, Aung said it's very unlikely for him to get medical care without help from the union.

"They worry about the blacklist," Aung said. "If they contact me and it makes the owner angry, he's not going to get the job back again with this company. Most of the seafarers will wait. If they know this is their last chance, they contact me, if they are really suffering."

According to the CDC, seafaring is an especially dangerous profession that is six times more fatal than the average American job.

Studies show seafarers face significant health disparities. They are more likely to die from heart disease, work accidents, drownings, suicides, and workplace violence, compared to other jobs. They are also more likely to experience an injury that results in a disability.

Filipinos who die or get injured on the job have few legal resources. Over the past 20 years, a series of court decisions have taken the teeth out of protections afforded by The Jones Act, which allows Filipinos who work on U.S. owned ships to sue within the American legal system. Now, there's precedent for these lawsuits to resolve privately in the Philippines.

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Aung, who is originally from Burma and worked as a seafarer himself, now works with Filipino seafarers on a regular basis and understands the conditions they endure.

"It's modern slavery," Aung said. "Everybody thinks that slavery is no more, right? But for seafarers, it's like modern slavery because everything on the ship depends on the shipowner."

During the pandemic, seafarers have dealt with especially difficult conditions and isolation. When borders closed due to COVID-19 outbreaks, hundreds of thousands of workers at sea were left stranded on board. Aung said that some workers were stuck for 18 to 22 months.

As the shipping industry deals with increased holiday demand and mounting issues with the global supply chain, the pressure on these workers only grows.

"The people responsible for the cargo, so many of their experiences are invisible to most of us," Shannon Guillot Wright said. "We rely on that labor, on this population that is completely forgotten and to be frank not treated in the best way oftentimes. They could be treated much better with a much higher standard."

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