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Manila Times Editorial: Giving hope to our seafarers

Giving hope to our seafarers
The Editorial Board November 22, 2022

A FORTNIGHT ago, Filipino seafarers were dismayed when word floated around that the European Commission (EC) might thumb its nose at their certification that gives them the authority to board EU ships.

The certification is based on the Philippines' implementation of the Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping (STCW) Convention for Seafarers signed in 1978. It seems that the country has been lagging in some aspects of the global convention.   

The Maritime Industry Authority (Marina) quickly downplayed this information. It urged the public to be prudent while the government's comprehensive response and strategic action plan to address grievances on the country's implementation is being reviewed by the European Commission in Brussels.

The government, through Marina, submitted its Final Report of Compliance to the European Commission in March 2022. It was the result of close collaboration among government agencies and maritime industry stakeholders representing maritime education and training, ship management, and seafarers.

The Committee on Safe Seas and the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (COSS) is the EC body responsible for submitting its recommendation to the EC. In turn, the EC will decide on the status of the Philippines' compliance with the convention. A decision is unlikely to be released in 2022 since Philippine compliance with the STCW is not part of this year's COSS agenda.

"The deliberation on the Philippine response by the COSS may not happen until spring of 2023, or about March to May 2023," said Samuel Batalla, officer-in-charge of the STCW office of the Marina said.

Even as the Marina stressed that the EC continues to recognize the STCW certificates of Filipino seafarers, the maritime administration has acknowledged the challenges that have prevented it from addressing the recurring findings of the European Maritime Safety Agency (EMSA).

To mollify growing concern over the possible loss of 55,000 jobs of Filipino seafarers, Batalla stressed that the EC has not yet decided on whether or not to withdraw the recognition of Philippine-issued STCW certificates.

He added that there would be no immediate significant loss of jobs. However, there would be no employment of new Filipino officers if the EC decides not to recognize the Certificate of Competency (COC) because of our non-compliance.

Batalla explained: "There are 49,461 Filipino marine officers as of July 2022, according to EMSA. These Filipino officers may continue to work on EU-flagged ships until the expiration of their current STCW certificates."

How did things come to such a pass? Batalla said this might have been caused by the quick changes in Marina's leadership. He said at least five officials have called the shots at Marina since 2016 under the Duterte administration alone.

Moreover, he called the attention of the House of Representatives education committee on the lack of permanent personnel in both Marina and the Commission on Higher Education (CHEd). These personnel were supposed to inspect and monitor the country's maritime higher education institutions.

At present, the Philippines has 83 maritime schools, 84 training centers, and 32 assessment centers. At the Marina, there are only 17 permanent personnel who can serve as lead evaluators to inspect and monitor maritime institutions. The Marina and CHEd should hire more personnel, even on a temporary job-order basis, since it takes a while for full plantilla positions to be opened in government.

Moreover, our maritime schools and training centers can learn the best practices in maritime education from the cultural and education officers of the embassies of Japan, the Netherlands, Norway and the United Kingdom, the countries with the world's best maritime schools. The curriculum and syllabi in many of these schools are also uploaded online, and they can be replicated in local schools. Filipino maritime teachers should also undergo upskilling and updating, so they can train a better cohort of students.

Lastly, the Marina administrator should be a career official who knows the maritime industry like the back of his hand, rather than someone appointed by the President. This would ensure consistency and sustained policy implementation until we meet the desired outcomes. Otherwise, the world-renowned Filipino seafarers will no longer be able to offer their services to the world.