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PH seafarers face rough waters: Lockdowns, costly testing halt Filipinos’ return to jobs in maritime industry

PH seafarers face rough waters: Lockdowns, costly testing halt Filipinos’ return to jobs in maritime industry
Maricar Cinco September 25, 2020

BATANGAS CITY—Marine chief engineer Lino Abellana, 56, is set to board a merchant ship in November, but he has yet to prepare his job papers as commuting from his home province of Laguna to the manning agency in Manila is made difficult by the lack of public transport because of the new coronavirus disease pandemic.

The situation is even more complicated for seafarers coming from provinces that have been placed under localized lockdowns or still without domestic flights or commercial boat trips to the national capital.

“You need to have an allowance before your departure date since protocols nowadays require you to undergo quarantine and take swab tests,” Abellana said.

Seafarers waiting for job openings pay for their stay in dormitories in Metro Manila, where most government and recruitment agencies are based.

“What’s painful is after all the [waiting], you turn up positive [for the coronavirus] and so you won’t be allowed to embark,” Abellana said.

Port closures and border lockdowns affected maritime trade both ways—first, with still about 300,000 “overcontract” crew (as of September, according to government estimates) stuck on board ships around the world, and second, the seafarers who were supposed to replace them were stranded onshore.

In domestic shipping, since the suspension of passenger trips in March, companies hit a mere “breakeven” from ferrying only cargoes and vital goods across the country, said Jeffrey Solon, deputy administrator for operations of the Maritime Industry Authority (Marina).

Solon was interviewed here on Friday when he attended the Philippine Port Authority’s test run of its automated ticketing system and on Monday, through telephone, after the opening of the National Maritime Week.

The government offered local shipping lines huge tax breaks to keep their operations afloat and continue transporting supplies and locally stranded individuals.

Solon said “30,000 to 40,000” seafarers were waiting for deployment abroad but could not leave due to travel restrictions.

The International Maritime Organization, which limits a seafarer’s stay offshore to no more than 12 months primarily to protect his mental state, has acknowledged crew change, or the supposed swapping of ship crew after every tour, as a global humanitarian and economic crisis.

Before the pandemic, the Philippines, which supplies 25 percent of the 1.5 million seafarers globally, had been deploying about 50,000 seafarers monthly, records from Marina showed.

Other countries have tightened the screening of Filipino seamen, like Singapore, which requires a 72-hour turnaround of a negative COVID-19 test result.

“Some [private] laboratories are taking advantage of this, charging seafarers P23,000 to P25,000 for a faster RT-PCR (reverse transcription-polymerase chain reaction) result,” Solon said.

International shipping operators still preferred Filipinos to man cargo vessels that move 80 percent of the global trade, he said, but Philippine state agencies were worried that they might start looking for other nationalities if Filipino crew members were not immediately replaced.
Crew change hubs

To ease the movement, the Philippines in July opened three crew change hubs in Manila, Subic and Bataan’s Port Capinpin to encourage ships to dock in the Philippines. Marina was also working to open the ports here and in the cities of Cebu and Davao to allow foreign cargo vessels to change their crew.

In Asia, ships used to change its crew in Singapore and Hong Kong, forcing Filipino seafarers to fly to these countries’ ports for embarkation.

“[The pandemic] gave us a rare opportunity [to open crew change hubs] which could help generate [local] income from [local] hotels, [ship] repairs and refueling,” Solon said.

Marina plans to open a one-stop government shop in Cebu so seafarers need not go to Manila for processing of employment papers.