Outrage over compulsory pregnancy tests for women seafarers

Females wait for their turn along with males applying for seafaring jobsText and photos by LUCIA P. TANGI


A week before she was about to leave the country for her first job on a cruise liner, Mary Valdez (not her real name) received a text message from her crewing agency. She was instructed to return to the clinic where she had completed her medical examination three weeks earlier in order to have another pregnancy test.

Valdez, 26, was surprised. Why did she have to undergo the test again? She was single and had no sexual partner at the time.

When she asked for an explanation, the crewing staff told her: “This is S.O.P. (standard operating procedure) in the cruise industry. Sumunod ka na lang kung gusto mo makaalis agad (Just obey if you want to leave right away).”

Desperate to get the cruise job, Valdez agreed even when she was reluctant and felt “very uncomfortable.”

Why two pregnancy tests

Valdez is just one of the hundreds of Filipino women seafarers who have to undergo pregnancy tests twice before they can leave for shipboard employment. The first pregnancy test is conducted as part of the regular physical examination; the second is usually required two to three days before a woman leaves for a cruise job.

Women seafarers find this compulsory pregnancy test offensive and a violation of their rights as women. More than 9,000 women were deployed to passenger ships in 2010.

Bakit naman kami mga single required pa rin mag-pregnancy test? Para kasing sinasabi na kami we had sex while we are here (in the Philippines) kahit single kami (Why are they imposing a pregnancy test on single women like us. It’s insinuating that we had sex while we are in the Philippines even if we are single),” Valdez said.

A crewing manager who requested anonymity said compulsory pregnancy tests are intended to make sure that women are not pregnant when they work on board.

“Just imagine if a crew member discovers that she is pregnant on her first month. Then that means the agency will have to shoulder her repatriation and immediately look for a replacement,” he said.

Jeremy Cajiuat, project development officer of the International Seafarers’ Action Center (ISAC) Philippines Foundation, confirmed the compulsory pregnancy tests.

“One vital explanation for the pregnancy test would be to establish a mindset of strictness in sexual activity, which sadly, is also very much an uncontrolled phenomenon with the crew onboard cruise ships,” he said.

Cajiuat added, “Unwanted pregnancies and pregnancy with someone else than her own husband is a difficult issue to occur onboard ships, and while being atrocious, the anti-pregnancy test is aimed at ‘serving as a deterrent.’”

Discrimination in employment

Whether they are to ascertain that the female seafarer is not pregnant at the time of deployment or deter unwanted pregnancies aboard a vessel, pregnancy tests as a requirement for employment violate the Maternity Protection Convention 2000 or Convention No. 183 to the International Labour Organization.

Article 9 of the convention enjoins member countries to “adopt appropriate measures to ensure that maternity does not constitute a source of discrimination in employment.”

In other countries, women seafarers do not undergo pregnancy tests.

The ILO convention permits pregnancy test or a certification of pregnancy test only if the job is restricted for pregnant or nursing women under national laws or regulations or “where there is a recognized or significant risk to the health of the woman and child.”

The International Transport Workers Federation (ITF), an international federation of trade unions that includes seafarers, said in its website: “Pregnancy should never be treated as a disciplinary offence. Pregnancy testing before you are employed may violate International Labour Organisation (ILO) Convention 183.”

Problem is, the Philippines is not a signatory to ILO Convention No. 183, which entered into force on Feb. 7, 2002. Only 29 countries have ratified the convention, including Albania, Austria, Cuba, Italy and the Netherlands.

Even so, the Philippines has the Magna Carta of Women, or Republic Act No. 9710, which mandates the abolition of all forms of discrimination against women.

“The State condemns discrimination against women in all its forms and pursues by all appropriate means and without delay the policy of eliminating discrimination against women in keeping with the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and other international instruments consistent with Philippine law. The State shall accord women the rights, protection, and opportunities available to every member of society,” Chapter 1, Section 2 of the law states.

The Shipboard Workplace Code of Conduct of the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), the world’s largest cruise industry trade association with representation in North and South America, Europe, Asia and Australia, requires members to adopt “a policy of industry-wide commitment to safety, security and fair treatment of crewmembers in the shipboard environment.”

Although recruitment and employment of seafarers who serve on cruise vessels may be delegated to third parties, the CLIA code requires members to monitor the activities of these third parties to ensure they comply with obligations under international law.

Buck passing

VERA Files emailed CLIA to ask about the pregnancy tests and other issues. Elinore Boeke, CLIA public affairs director, replied, “For specific questions, you’ll need to contact the individual cruise lines. CLIA, as a trade association, does not participate in hiring and compensation of crew.”

VERA Files also emailed Royal Caribbean Cruises (Asia) Pte Ltd for comment. Most of the seafarers interviewed have worked onboard Royal Caribbean and Carnival Cruise Lines.

The company’s corporate communications manager for Singapore and Southeast Asia, Chin Ying Duan, said, “My HQ advised that for such questions it is more appropriate for CLIA to answer them, as an industry. Please kindly approach CLIA for the inputs.’’

As long as there is no specific ban on pregnancy test as a requirement for employment, the practice in the cruise industry will be difficult to curb.

(This two-part report is based on the author’s M.A. thesis, “Pinays Aboard: A Study on the General Working Conditions on Filipino Women Seafarers On Board International Vessel,” submitted to the College of Social Work and Community Development, UP Diliman.)