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Atty. Brenda V. Pimentel: Prospects for the maritime industry under the SONA

Prospects for the maritime industry under the SONA
Atty. Brenda V. Pimentel August 3, 2022

BEFORE President Ferdinand R. Marcos Jr.'s delivery of his State of the Nation Address (SONA) last July 15, there was anxious expectation marked by optimism among the maritime stakeholders that this time, the maritime industry will be included in the Philippine President's platform of government. The expectation is not without basis, after all, President Marcos Jr. must have acquired that strong affinity to the sea with his ancestral roots founded in the coastal province of Ilocos Norte and the island of Leyte. As governor of Ilocos Norte, he is not oblivious of the beauty of the waters that line the coast of his home province. It is therefore easy to assume he shares the Filipino's pride in being a citizen of the Philippine archipelago.

Another good reason for the high expectation of the maritime stakeholders is grounded on the fact that it was his father, the late President Ferdinand Edralin Marcos Sr. who issued Presidential Decree (PD) 474 in 1974 to accelerate the development of the Philippine maritime industry.

The decree lays down in very clear terms the following objectives: a) increase production and productivity in the various islands and regions of the archipelago; b) provide for the economical, safe, adequate and efficient shipment of raw materials, products, commodities and people; c) enhance the competitive position of Philippine flagged-vessels in the carriage of foreign trade; d) strengthen the balance of payments position by minimizing the outflow of foreign exchange and increasing dollar earnings; and e) generate new and more job opportunities.

These objectives are still valid and appropriate up to this time, 48 years after President Marcos Sr. signed PD 474. The programs mentioned by his son, President Marcos Jr., in his first SONA corresponds to the intentions of PD 474. All these are anchored on the vision of expanding and developing a Philippine merchant fleet.

The immediate years following the issuance of PD 474 were dedicated to putting in place the government organization, i.e., the Maritime Industry Authority (Marina) which is given the primary function of realizing the objectives stipulated in PD 474. Such a mandate revolves on assisting the shipping industry and all pertinent sectors involved in modernizing Philippine sea transport and improving the country's maritime safety record.

With time, the focus of government in overseeing the maritime industry shifted as the direction from the highest leadership of the land waned; then the state of affairs of the Philippine maritime industry became distorted.

SONA 2022 is replete with maritime consequences...

As in the SONAs by all past administrations, the maritime stakeholder's expectations' turned into one of frustration with sea transport all forgotten; with hopelessness that resonates across the industry. To placate maritime stakeholders, there in the SONA of President Marcos Jr. traces maritime. It is packed with matters relating to sea transport, notwithstanding that specific reference was limited only to road, air and rail modes of transportation. Government must realize that until the seas run dry, maritime transport will remain a major means of moving people and cargoes in this archipelago.

Agriculture, disaster response, tourism, infrastructure

President Marcos Jr. spoke of increasing the productivity of farmers; that is the first objective of PD 474. Transport of modern machinery and implements as well as fertilizers, either in bulk or in bags/sacks intended for beneficiary farmers in the various islands of the archipelago are most likely to be undertaken by sea. It is inconceivable to think of a national network of farm-to-market roads as proposed by President Marcos Jr. without including shipping services. The country, after all, consists of more than 7,000 islands.

Farmers of Mindoro, the Visayas and Mindanao consider sea transport the most viable means of bringing agricultural produce to the market. Recent events showed big quantities of rotten tomatoes and onions in the island provinces. Was there any effort to find out if the lack or inadequacy of economical and reliable sea transport services was part of the problem, notwithstanding that the cause for such waste was deflected to competition posed by imported vegetables? Which agency should have ascertained there are, in fact, adequate sea transport services that will cater to the needs of the farmers?

Replicating specialized medical facilities such as the Philippine Heart Center, Lung Center, Children's Hospital and National Kidney Institute across the country will require massive movement of engineering and construction equipment. Again sea transport will be the best option for moving these. In cases of natural calamities such as earthquakes and typhoons, ships are used extensively in the transport of relief goods and the needed equipment for response and rescue operations ashore and at sea.

Tourism was identified as a priority program, therefore, building roads, airports and seaports are to be pursued. Ships trading in domestic voyages must offer transport services suited to the needs of both local and foreign tourists. It is unthinkable for foreign tourists not to try a sea trip in this archipelago, regardless of how short this may be. Likewise, allowing local travelers to relish the beauty of the archipelago through sea transport deserves attention. Regardless that sea transport was overlooked, stakeholders must endure the rebuff and sustain their services to the tourists of this archipelago.

There is an unending acknowledgment of the benefits of the Build, Build, Build program of the past administration, earning as it is, the affirmation to continue the program during the six-year term of President Marcos Jr. It is conceded that many support such a program. As the program provides the tangible response to establishing a multimodal transport in the archipelago, though never articulated as such, then it must necessarily include the sea transport leg.

It is disheartening that the contribution of the Philippine Nautical Highway (PNH) in connecting the islands of the archipelago is hardly acknowledged. The PNH consists of ships procured and maintained by the private sector, with no cost to the government except the provision of seaports. These domestic ships correspond to the concrete roads ashore, built and maintained with high government participation. The shipping sector therefore must continue to advocate for the PNH to be given a place on the government agenda. Maritime stakeholders must therefore work relentlessly with the concerned agencies in this respect.

Education, digitalization

Maritime stakeholders support the review of the K to 12 education program and consider this as key to further improving the country's maritime education and training. While many would look at the K to12 as a means to making completers of the senior high school job-ready, the maritime education sector considers the program crucial in making the completers ready to pursue a merchant marine higher education. Therefore, it is incumbent on the pertinent agencies and the maritime higher education institutions to closely and pro-actively participate in the ongoing review of the K to 12.

Being good at English is not what makes a Filipino seafarer. Merchant marine professionals must be educated as problem solvers and critical thinkers, considered essential attributes in navigation. K to 12 must therefore provide the foundation for the Filipino brand of world-class seafarers.

Global trade is highly dependent on shipping credited to moving ninety percent (90 percent) of traded goods. The rapid development in technology and digitalization is observed in the shipping sector contributing to the promotion of maritime safety, security, and efficiency. For a country touted to be the premier supplier of competent seafarers to the international shipping community, this matter must be taken in the review of the K to12 program. The matter of a maritime high school or a maritime track in addition to the existing program has been percolating since the K to 12 was introduced. This could be the appropriate time to bring this up.

Job generation, migrant workers

Creating employment opportunities is one of the pledges of PD 474. This pledge is anchored on President Marcos Sr.'s vision of raising the quality of life of the Filipinos. Short of stating this in his SONA, this appears compatible with the dream that President Marcos Jr. shares with the Filipinos as he articulated during his inaugural address last June 20.

In crafting PD 474, creating job opportunities in the maritime industry was identified as central to integrating the maritime functions under one institution. For this archipelago, it has become easy to count on the overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) for their substantial contribution to the economy; for this, the OFWs deserve the protection of the government.

There are countless OFWs, however, who have expressed their desire to come back to the Philippines and be with their families. To many, the wage they receive could never compensate for the long separation with and sometimes, breakdown of the family.

Given the necessary support and assistance by the government, coupled with policy, legislative and institutional reforms, the maritime industry should be able to generate job opportunities. Seafaring is just one of the many maritime career opportunities. Employment in ship management, superintendency, naval architecture and engineering, port management/operations plus specialized skills in the shipyards, stevedoring, ship agency, a ship brokerage, and the like should be given extra attention. Running a progressive ship registry could create jobs as an alternative to housekeeping and similar menial tasks overseas.

There is a need to support the OFWs, yet, the government should not abandon the attendant obligation of generating jobs within the country.

The maritime stakeholders continue to contribute to this national aspiration of job creation given the limited support from the government. There is no reason for the private sector to shrink from the commitment to employ Filipinos. Bringing back as many OFWs who are in the housekeeping jobs is a target aimed at restoring national pride.

Climate change and environment protection

Among the various modes of transportation, sea transport contributes the least to pollution of the environment which is faulted for climate change. Maritime agencies and stakeholders should endeavor to share the best practices in pollution prevention with other transportation facilities. Maritime and shipping enterprises must continue in reducing carbon footprint and for safeguarding the marine environment.

The Philippines has gained the humiliating title of being one of the top three plastic polluters, many of such solid waste ending up at sea. While shipping may not be the source of this waste, maritime stakeholders both in government and the private sector must endeavor to sustain utmost care and attention in handling waste from ships. This is part of a flag State obligation, and a review of the implementation of international and national regulations has to be undertaken, as well.

National Government Rightsizing Program (NGRP)

Of the legislative agenda laid down in the SONA, the government rightsizing program responds to the call of the stakeholders to put an order in the exercise of maritime regulatory functions. The confusion brought about by widespread overlaps among the various agencies adversely impacts the sustainability and viability of maritime enterprises. Acknowledging the role of the private sector as one of the engines of growth in the economy provides a better perspective on why the government must support and assist the industry players. Shipping and the associated sectors are highly capitalized and expect that in delivering maritime services on behalf of the government, they should at least be given support through a better business environment.

Foremost to the support expected from the government is ensuring there is constancy, consistency, and predictability in the policies, legislation, and regulations. The absence of a clear understanding of the various operations in the maritime industry gives rise to a plethora of regulations. The result is a confused and distorted view of the exercise of the government's maritime functions which contradicts the spirit of PD 474. The overarching objective of PD 474 has been forgotten, a conclusion that is based on policies and regulations that have been formulated and implemented. PD 474 stipulates in very specific terms for the government to provide support to the maritime industry, yet the latter continues to live up with incoherent and conflicting programs and regulations. Decades-long Issues and concerns of the maritime industry remain unresolved; thus retarding the development of the maritime industry.

And the key to the above is transforming the maritime agency(cies) to capacitate them in performing their mandates as per their respective charters.

SONA 2022, what is it to the maritime industry?

The absence of any direct reference to the maritime industry in President Marcos Jr.'s State of the Nation Address is indicative of the degree of importance or the lack of it for the maritime industry. From President Marcos Sr. up to President Fidel V. Ramos, the maritime industry received the highest attention as they introduced policy, legislative and institutional reforms with the expansion and development of the Philippine merchant fleet as the top-line objective of these reforms.

As an aside, maritime stakeholders must closely follow the crafting of the Implementing Rules and Regulations Republic Act 11659 which amended the Public Service Act of 1936 to ensure the promised safety nets to protect the Philippine maritime industry are not jettisoned.

In conclusion, that the maritime industry was not mentioned in the SONA 2022 is of no moment. It is for the stakeholders to read between the lines; it is for them to discern what and where the plans of this administration could help the industry. And most importantly, it is for the stakeholders to increase the visibility of the maritime industry as a potent economic tool of this archipelago! Then will the maritime industry be acknowledged!