Gov’t rushes to avert EU ban on PH seafarers

By Dona Z. Pazzibugan

November 3, 2022 12:00:00

President Marcos has removed from the Maritime Industry Authority (Marina) the task of overseeing maritime training and accreditation after the country repeatedly failed to pass the European Maritime Safety Agency's (Emsa) evaluation in the past 16 years.

According to Migrant Workers Secretary Susan Ople, the President has tasked other concerned agencies, excluding Marina, to come up with an "implementation plan" to bring the country's maritime training industry up to international standards.

Around 50,000 Filipino seafarers working in European vessels are reportedly at risk of losing their jobs since the Emsa has given a final deadline this month for the country to address the concerns raised by Emsa.

According to Ople, Mr. Marcos has ordered the Department of Transportation (DOTr), Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA), Department of Labor and Employment (Dole), and Department of Migrant Workers (DMW) as well as the Commission on Higher Education (CHEd) to see to it the country's maritime training and accreditation system will pass the EU review."The President has issued a directive recently [after] we tackled the Emsa audit report several times in the Cabinet [meetings]," Ople said in an interview this week.

"The DOTr, DFA, DMW, CHEd and Dole would have to sit down and come up with an implementation plan, because we have been submitting compliance reports in the past 10 years but we have not really seriously addressed the shortcomings that show up in these audit reports of Emsa," she said."We are looking at the root causes [of failing the Emsa audit] and looking to address these soon," added Ople, whose agency was created only this year.

Top supplier

The Philippines is a top source of certified seafarers in the world and these Filipino maritime workers send about P376 billion in remittances annually."We're almost back to the prepandemic level of deployment of seafarers since the cruise ships have returned," according to Ople.

As a consequence of the Russia-Ukraine conflict, Ople said EU shipping companies have turned to Filipino seafarers to make up for the shortfall since Ukraine could not supply seafarers anymore.

Before Russia's invasion in February this year, Ukraine was the world's sixth biggest supplier of seafarers.

"With Ukraine (seafarers) gone, EU shipping companies went looking and there's a preference for Filipino seafarers," Ople said.

According to the 2021 maritime transport report of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (Unctad), the Philippines was the top provider of seafarers globally, followed by Indonesia, China and India.

"Over a quarter of all global merchant shipping crew members come from the Philippines. As of 2019, there were 380,000 Filipino seafarers overseas," the Unctad report noted. EU decision coming

During last week's public hearing by the House committee on overseas workers affairs, officials from various agencies admitted that Filipino seafarers in EU-flagged ships were in danger of losing their jobs since the Philippines had repeatedly failed to pass the Emsa audit for compliance with the 1978 International Convention on Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping for Seafarers (STCW) since 2006.

But during the same hearing, Marina said there was no imminent danger while the European Commission reviews the Philippines' response and action plan to address the European Union's concerns on the government's implementation of the STCW Convention for seafarers.

It said it submitted the country's Final Report of Compliance to the European Commission in March 2022. The European Commission will then decide on the status of the country's compliance with the STCW and Marina said a decision was unlikely to be released this year. "The (EU) deliberation on the Philippine response may not happen until spring of 2023 or about March to May 2023," Samuel Batalla, officer in charge of Marina's STCW Office, told lawmakers.Since 1998, Marina has been the overall lead government agency in the implementation of the STCW.

In 2014, former President Benigno Aquino III signed Republic Act No. 10635 that established Marina as the single maritime administration to implement the STCW, the same year Emsa was conducting another audit of the country's education, training and certification system for seafarers.

At the time, CHEd already said that 123, or 75 percent of the 157 maritime training programs in the country, had failed to meet quality standards since 2009.

The European Union recognized the Philippines' maritime education, training and certification in 2002, allowing Filipino seafarers to work in EU-flagged vessels.The Philippines has repeatedly faced since 2006 the possibility of a ban by the European Union on the hiring of Filipino seafarers after Emsa perennially raised concerns about the country's compliance with international seafaring standards.

In July 2019, Nelson Ramirez, president of the United Filipino Seafarers (UFS), said in an Inquirer report that the Philippine maritime industry was "dying.""This is why there are many training courses required (under the STCW) for our seafarers: our maritime education is wrong," he said.Marina turnover

The administration of Marina has also been hounded by controversy over the years.

Last September, the country's seafarers strongly opposed the move by Marina to bring back the management level course, a training program that they claim would only be an added financial burden to them.

It was revived by new Marina chief Hernani Fabia, who also intends to impose huge fines of P50,000 to as much as P1 million on seafarers and manning agencies caught in any act of deception in securing a certificate of proficiency.

UFS expressed dismay over the revival of the management level course and accused Fabia of conflict of interest, saying the latter would benefit from it since he allegedly owns a training center and a maritime school.

Fabia was appointed in July 2022, succeeding former Philippine Navy chief Robert Empedrad.

In January 2018, former President Rodrigo Duterte fired "jet-setting" Marina administrator Marcial Amaro III for making 24 foreign trips in just 18 months in office. —WITH A REPORT FROM INQUIRER RESEARCH INQ