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Deadweight: the perils of seafaring life

Dennis Gorecho .

I WAS elated to see my name in the credits of the film “Deadweight,” a Finnish-German co-production that  explores the tough working conditions in the globalised shipping business.

In 2014, I was interviewed by  German filmmaker Axel Koenzen on the different issues confronting the Filipino seafarers, including the perils of the profession like disability or death due to illness, injury or accidents.

Two years later, the film had its world premiere at the 2016  Berlin International Film Festival. 

Deadweight is a measure of how much weight a ship can carry, or the sum of the weights of cargo, fuel, fresh water, ballast water, provisions, passengers, and crew.

Ahti Ikonen is the captain of a large 35,000-ton container vessel Brugge, which enters the port of Savannah behind schedule. As they are under deadline pressure, he violated regulations by ordering his crew to help the local dockworkers unload the cargo. Unfortunately, it costs the life of a Filipino seafarer James that threatens his career. In the port of Rotterdam, Netherlands unionized dockworkers exploit the incident and refuse to unload the ship and called for a boycott.

The film was aptly described in the 9th Subversive Film Festival in  Zagreb, Croatia as “Axel’s nautical piece which  deals with the exploitation of the nautical working class that makes the functioning of capitalistic efficiency possible. With an accentuated documentary approach,  through various observational methods the film speaks about responsibility, limitations, restrictions, which are symbolic of a time in which instructions are mediated through e-mail and  radio,  and reflect the essence of the global syndrome of mediated management – the shifting of responsibility that often falls on the lowest level executioner. The film has adapted, in its making, to the rhythm of the boat, while the author refuses to romanticize the hard and brutal working conditions of its crew.”

An interesting issue that the film sought to address is the real cause of James’ death, whether  it is due to an accident or suicide.

James was somewhat suffering from a depression as his request  for repatriation  was not granted even if his tenure was already beyond that stipulated in the contract. In a scene he was  shown with a head injury after the illegal lashing and then as a dead person.

An interesting scene was the discussion among the crew on what will be the tenor of their testimony surrounding James’ death.

If he died due to accident, the heirs will be paid US$50,000 and an additional amount of US$7,000 to each child under the age of 21 but not exceeding four children under the POEA contract. The amount usually is higher if the death is covered by a Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA).

On the other hand, declaring the incident as suicide will save the owners large amount of payment for death benefits from the insurance companies.

The employer is liable to pay the heirs of the deceased seafarer for death benefits once it is established that he died during the effectivity of his employment contract. However, the employer may be exempt from liability if it can successfully prove that the seafarer’s death was caused by an injury directly attributable to his deliberate or willful act, including killing himself by committing suicide.

The investigators  concluded that James died by suicide due to illegal lashing based on the testimony of the crew.

Studies identify as most frequently cited factors for seafarers’ suicide the  various work-related problems which  included conflicts among the crew, disciplinary problems, work pressure,  cancellation of shore leave, various mental health conditions, depression,  marital or girlfriend problems and  alcohol consumption.

“Deadweight” had its Philippine premier last week at the UP Film Center in Diliman. I suggested to Axel that it be shown in schools and other venues in time for the National Seafarers’ Day celebration during the last week of September.

(Lawyer  Dennis R. Gorecho heads the seafarers’ division of the Sapalo Velez Bundang Bulilan  law offices. For comments, email, or call 09175025808 or 09088665786)


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TREND MAKER. Mindanao Gold Star Daily was established in 1989 to set ablaze a new meaning & flame to the local newspaper business. Throughout the years it continued its focus and interest in the rural areas & pioneered the growth of countryside journalism.

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