Long-term plan for seafarers needed

BIZLINKS - Rey Gamboa - The Philippine Star

In the Philippines, the workings of the bureaucracy proceeds at its own pace, and there is little one can do to hurry it, no matter how grave the consequences of poor action. There is no glaring example better than what is happening to our seafarer training.

The Philippines now accounts for the biggest nationality of seafarers in international waters, although this is being challenged by other countries like India, Indonesia, Myanmar, and a few from Eastern Europe that have aggressive programs to deploy a significant portion of their labor force for seafaring.

The threat is all too real, especially for the entry level cadet positions that ship owners plying international waters are realizing they can get at lower rates from other countries, sometimes discounted by as much as half what they pay for Filipino mates.

For a service sector that boasts of about 700,000 workers, with more than half employed in international vessels, our government seems to be oblivious to this development. The lack of a cohesive program to address the problem seems farthest from its everyday priorities.

The country stands to lose a significant amount of repatriated earnings from seafarers who have constituted over nine percent of gross domestic product (GDP) in recent years. At worse, lower class Filipino seamen may have to return home jobless, with much dire prospects of employment in the local seafaring sector.

Double jeopardy

A better command of English and the generally amiable demeanor of Filipino recruits stand to lose their appeal to employers in favor of a lower base salary that competing nationalities are ready to accept. Perhaps more alarming is the seriousness by which their respective governments are adopting to prepare their graduates to take on the job.

Poor on-the-job training has perennially challenged maritime students in the Philippines, and this problem has been one that has hogged the local maritime learning system for decades. During the early years in the 1970s, it was the absence of strong government oversight on maritime schools.

Too many government agencies with overlapping or conflicting mandates provided the perfect setting for an inability to police the existence of maritime schools that were diploma mills, or to a certain extent, part of the reason for the proliferation of fake certificates.

In a first audit done by the European Maritime Safety Agency (EMSA) in 2006, more than 200 non-compliance problems were identified. Over the years, and in response to succeeding audits, the outstanding areas of concern have been trimmed down to single digit numbers.

The most outstanding remains to be the poor quality of maritime education and training that Filipinos receive, not only for entry-level graduates, but also for upper classmen. The problem becomes even more glaring for officer classification, and this is reflected in the small numbers of Filipino seafarers that occupy positions of higher rank in international vessels.

Not only is the Philippines losing out on fielding its graduates in starting jobs aboard international ships, Filipino seafarers  also face tougher challenges in getting qualified for higher positions that would allow them to get better pay.

Streamlining seafaring training responsibility

The Maritime Industry Authority (MARINA) now wields vastly strengthened regulatory powers, thanks to a series of legislative and executive actions that clarified administrative lines of responsibility, particularly involving compliance with agreements to the International Convention on the Standards of Training, Certification, and Watchkeeping (STCW) of 1978.

In 2012, a good 34 years after being part of the convention, EO 75 was issued to reduce the number of agencies involved in managing the Maritime Training Council (MTC), one of the weakest links identified in the EMSA audits.

In 2014, Republic Act 10635 was passed designating MARINA as the sole maritime government agency responsible for the implementation and enforcement of the STCW Convention. However, in typical bureaucratic ineptness, MARINA needed additional firepower to be able to go after errant maritime schools.

In 2018, EO 63 was signed by President Duterte to further strengthen MARINA and its partner agency, the Commission on Higher Education (CHEd), to close down non-compliant maritime colleges and universities, which in early 2020 were identified to be over two-thirds of the number of existing schools.

The pandemic had temporarily put on hold any joint action by MARINA-CHEd to close down non-compliant schools, but the recent issuance of a new audit report and subsequent warnings of the possibility for the Philippines to lose accreditation of its seamen under the STCW Convention is applying renewed pressure.

It remains to be seen how MARINA will deal with the inferior training dished out by the non-compliant maritime schools this time, and whether those schools will really be shuttered. Abangan!

Visioning needed

While the bureaucratic lines of responsibility have now become clearer compared to when the Philippines first acceded to compliance with the STCW in 1978, the overall government response since has largely been one of finding remedies to problems flagged in the many succeeding EMSA audits.

Definitely, the government needs to provide a vision for our seafaring sector on whose contribution to the economy has grown significantly to over $6 billion annually in remittances. We should take advantage of the growing global seafaring service industry to put Filipinos in better positions of bigger responsibilities and improved pay.

Will MARINA lead the way? Or shall we start a new process of quibbling over whose responsibility this is? More importantly, to whoever would lead this initiative, would a workable plan be ready soon enough to save what has already been gained over the past decades? Or will we lose out to other countries?

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We are actively using two social networking websites to reach out more often and even interact with and engage our readers, friends and colleagues in the various areas of interest that I tackle in my column. Please like us on www.facebook.com/ReyGamboa and follow us on www.twitter.com/ReyGamboa.

Should you wish to share any insights, write me at Link Edge, 25th Floor, 139 Corporate Center, Valero Street, Salcedo Village, 1227 Makati City. Or e-mail me at [email protected]. For a compilation of previous articles, visit www.BizlinksPhilippines.net.

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