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LABOUR: Far from Home, Filipino Sailors Seek Sex Workers in Brazil Ports

Mario Osava

RIO DE JANEIRO, Oct 24 2001 (IPS) - “They are easy to do business with,” 36-year-old Denize Oliveira, who has been earning a living offering sex services to foreign sailors for 15 years, says of Filipino seafarers.

Indeed, Filipino sailors are the favourite clients of the Brazilian prostitutes plying their trade at Maua square near the port of Rio de Janeiro.

They told IPS that Filipinos — many of whom stop by Brazil’s ports because they make up one-fifth of all the world’s seafarers — were the most pleasant and the least inclined to haggle over prices.

“The ‘whites’ are the worst. They won’t give us cigarettes, and they treat us like whores. The Filipinos don’t. They treat us as equals and share everything,” said Oliveira.

In Maua square, which is eternally packed with people, buses and street stalls, the “whites” are Europeans, U.S. citizens, and some Latin Americans. The prostitutes split up into groups that cater to sailors of different nationalities.

A majority of the sex workers seek clients from the Philippines. Sometimes that preference even translates into pregnancy and children. Early this year, M, who has been working in Maua square for three years, gave birth to a baby whose father is a Filipino sailor.

“He always called me before he arrived at a port in Brazil, and he paid for my plane or bus ticket so we could get together. We lived that way for nearly a year,” said M.

Today, her Filipino sailor is working on ships plying the oceans in other parts of the world, although she says he telephones her frequently.

The preference is mutual. “Brazilian women are more affectionate,” said a 49-year-old Filipino who used to serve in the armed forces in his country and who has been a seaman for 14 years.

The sailor, who chose to call himself Vicente Perez for this interview, said: “In the five Brazilian ports I’ve visited, the girls speak Tagalog (the national language of the Philippines). You don’t find that anywhere else in the world,” he added, underlying that it made things much easier for sailors who spoke just a smattering of Portuguese and English.

However, the Maua square sex workers’ preference for Filipinos does not mean the sailors get off without criticism. The women agreed that many of them refused to use condoms. “If you insist, you can convince them to use one, but you lose a client who will choose someone else next time,” said Oliveira.

Cultural resistance to condoms is aggravated by fears of not being able to perform properly, said Antonio Carlos Sousa, a doctor who has attended to sailors in the Rio de Janeiro port for 14 years.

The men are already up against the exhaustion caused by their taxing work at sea, the effects of the alcohol they have consumed before their “date” with a prostitute, and the guilt they feel for paying for sex, and the condom is seen as an additional threat to their performance, he pointed out.

On board ships, workdays are long and rest is a scant commodity. When sailors return home, they usually sleep for two days straight before they can begin to enjoy their time off, said Sousa.

Exhaustion and inexperience lead to accidents, the main cause of medical problems among sailors, who come in with everything ranging from sprains and minor cuts to serious burns and amputations, said the doctor. Also frequent are depression, as well as skin problems caused by poor hygiene.

However, the incidence of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) has significantly diminished, thanks to more widespread use of the condom, and to sexual abstinence, because ships stay in port for shorter periods of time now, sometimes for just a few hours.

Perez and Cabante said they only practise safe sex, because they do not want to endanger either their own or their partners’ health.

Perez is a married father of two who said he misses his grown children very much. His work has kept him in Brazil for seven months, and the shipping company that hired him has problems that will delay his return to the Philippines by another seven months. Moreover, his salary was cut from 1,800 to 1,500 U.S. dollars a month.

Pérez opted for this line of work because his paychecks are three times what he could earn back home. But he said he did not like the lifestyle, and that it was often a hassle to deal with the 10 members of the cleaning crew he heads.

He plans to return to the Philippines when his contract is up, and set up a small business with the money he has saved.

Cabante, on the other hand, is a seaman by vocation who took university courses as part of his training. “I like the sea,” he said simply. As a helmsman, he earns just 700 dollars a month, although that is more than three times what he could make back home.

Still single, he would like to get married and have a family in the Philippines, despite the fact that his job would keep him away for long stretches. Movies and television — especially cartoons, he said — help him put up with the monotony and loneliness a board his vessel.

Still, in the next few months, while he works on freighters that transport cars, Cabante will continue to visit the women in the Maua square who cater to Filipinos.

“There are around 20 of us, but there used to be many more,” said Oliveira, who pointed out that many had gone to Spain.

Oliveira estimates the number of prostitutes now working in the square at around 80. Those who attend to Filipinos charge 50 dollars for the standard services and twice that for an entire night, although “you always have to negotiate,” because some clients “only want to pay 20,” she added.

The prostitutes take their clients to nearby hotels or to their own homes. Sometimes they go to the ships, “if the captain allows that.”

The port of Rio de Janeiro has undergone major changes over the last decade. In the past, sailors would spend days in port while their vessels loaded and unloaded. They gave life to businesses in the port area: prostitution, tourism-related trade, night clubs and hotels.

But due to technological advances in shipping, especially the use of containers, the time spent in port has been cut to hours instead of days. Sailors often do not even go ashore, said Milton Ferreira Tito, executive director of the Rio de Janeiro Shipping Agencies Union.

With the changes, the Maua square began to fall into decline. Several night clubs, also affected by the fear of HIV/AIDS, closed their doors.

When a ship makes port, what sailors need, more than sex, is simply normal relationships with other people.

A Catholic missionary institution, the Stella Maris Seamen’s Club, lends social, religious and other kinds of assistance to sailors at ports around the world. Catholic priest Olmes Milani has been helping seamen for 15 years in Santos, Brazil’s main port.

“Around 30 percent are Filipinos” although they are being outnumbered by sailors from other Asian countries like Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and poor nations that provide even cheaper labour today, said Milani, a Brazilian missionary.

Sugar cargo vessels, which tend to be older, were invariably run by Filipinos in the past, while today they are manned by sailors of four or five different nationalities, he observed.

Filipinos and the rest earn low wages, work in dismal safety and hygiene conditions, and are frequently “mistreated as if they were animals by their superiors, who are generally Europeans,” said Milani.

The modernisation of vessels and ports has reduced the length of trips, although sailors now work non-stop because they have no layover during the entire round-trip. The crews have also shrunk, which means each sailor has a variety of jobs to carry out and has greater stress and isolation.

It is impossible to develop friendships when workmates change every few months. The loneliness and labour instability spawn depression, said the missionary, who mentioned the suicides of two Filipino sailors in Santos: one of them hanged himself, while the other threw himself into the sea and was hurled against the rocky coast.

Milani confirmed that Filipinos tend to be careless or negligent when it comes to sex.

Coming from a society of conservative attitudes toward sex, Filipinos often “let loose” when they go abroad, especially in a country with liberal attitudes and a population that is welcoming and open, like Brazil, he concluded.

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