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Who is in charge in the repatriation of Filipino seafarers who are coming home at this time of the coronavirus disease 2019 (Covid-19) pandemic?

Who is in charge?
Brenda V. Pimentel May 20, 2020

Once again, the maritime industry is seeking for a categorical answer to the question: Who is in charge in the repatriation of Filipino seafarers who are coming home at this time of the coronavirus disease 2019 (Covid-19) pandemic?

Some may censure the question by saying this is not the time for fault-finding for the mess by which Filipino seafarers find themselves in going back home. Unlike land-based overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) who came back because of the disruption in their jobs caused by Covid-19, most seafarers (in the navigation side) who are coming home have completed their employment contracts. There are too, those onboard cruise ships, whose employment contracts were pre-terminated and were sent back by their employers due to the Covid-19 pandemic, although reports indicate they have encountered less difficulties in their repatriation.

For a country that provides hundreds of thousands of seafarers in the global shipping community, it is baffling that repatration of seafarers could be as chaotic, as this should be one of the many processes that have been in place in the export of shipboard manpower. It may be argued that the need to test and quarantine returning seafarers were unexpected; and dealing with the huge number of arriving seafarers at this archipelago’s ports of entry is just simply overwhelming.

And then there is the issue of who takes responsibility over the costs of testing and quarantine which to date is still being resolved. The Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA) and the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (OWWA) differ with the manning agents’ position as to whose account such expenses should be charged.

Government has been doing an incredible working addressing the problem of stranded seafarers, notwithstanding the issue of who bears the financial burden. Still, there is every reason to believe that basic mechanics and systems and procedures in seafarers’ repatriation could have been developed even if such were sparingly implemented. Such repatriation mechanics could have provided useful tools in drawing up practical protocols for the exceptionally high number of returning seafarers. That no one expected the pandemonium is no excuse for the absence of even just a rudimentary mechanism that will deal with seafarers’ repatriation.

One is reminded, the Maritime Labor Convention (MLC) 2006, which promotes a seafarer’s enjoyment of the right to decent working conditions, was ratified by the Philippines. While the convention deals primarily with matters in the workplace (i.e. the ship, conditions of work), it extends to repatriation of seafarers including the attendant activities thereto. MLC 2006 has not contemplated the scenario that is now unfolding, yet, there are certain provisions in the said convention that could guide government in ensuring seafarers’ welfare and well-being.

The Covid-19 pandemic is a good reason for government to review the implementation of MLC 2006, especially those seemingly inconsequential provisions on labour-supplying responsibilities of member-states. There is also a need to re-assess how this archipelago discharges its role as flag administration as distinguished from that of a labor-supplying country.

In the meantime, the question remains: who is in charge?