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Filipino Seafaring: A ship we cannot afford to sink

A ship we cannot afford to sink
March 31, 2019

SEAFARING is a profession that continues to be a source of Filipino pride. This is because the Philippines is the world’s largest supplier of seafarers, and these members of industrious, talented and resilient Filipino crew run the ships that drive global trade and tourism.

Right now, however, the Philippine maritime industry is in a perilous situation, as the latest deployment numbers show.

On Saturday, The Manila Times, in an exclusive story, reported that the country’s deployment of seafarers slumped by more than 100,000 in 2018.

Preliminary data from the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA) showed that seafarer deployment dropped by 111,961 from the year-earlier level to 337,502 in January to December 2018.

This will have serious implications on the consumption-led Philippine economy. Seafarers remit close to $5.8 billion to the country annually, according to the United Seafarers Association, and if the flow of cash transfers stop, their families would go hungry.

Filipino seafarers are facing a tougher global market and may lose their edge if we do not take urgent measures to make them more competitive.

One, they have become more expensive. One manning agency estimates that a messman from the Philippines gets paid about $1,000 a month, significantly higher than the $600-$800 range for Indonesian seafarers.

The cost of hiring Filipino seafarers is bound to go up further with the implementation of amendments to the Social Security System (SSS) charter, in which sea-based overseas workers are now classified as regular workers, instead of contractual.

The law also requires manning agents to remit the SSS contributions of the seafarers they had supplied to their principals, as they are now considered employers.

In addition, there is a problem called “ambulance-chasing,” in which unscrupulous lawyers exploit legal disputes between seafarers and their employers, usually involving health claims. As a result, shipowners are hiring more seafarers from other countries. India, for instance, is experiencing significant growth in employment at 35 percent in 2018. India deployed 208,799 seafarers in 2018, from 154,349 in 2017.

Other countries are also looking at grabbing the Philippines’ enviable spot as the top supplier of seafarers. China is already the biggest supplier of ship officers, and Russia and the Ukraine are presenting themselves to be better alternatives.

We haven’t even mentioned yet the problem of substandard training in maritime schools. Earlier this month, Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. urged Commission on Higher Education Chairman Prospero “Popoy” de Vera Jr. to improve the competitive edge of Filipino seafarers by tapping respectable auditors in checking the country’s maritime schools.

Philippine maritime education programs have long been under the scrutiny of the European Maritime Safety Agency, whose decision to fail the country following a 2006 audit is also one of the reasons for the decline in deployment.

Given all that, collective action is needed to ensure the country’s continued advantage in the seafaring industry, specifically in the areas of labor regulations and educational standards. It’s a ship that we cannot afford to sink.