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'Ambulance chasing', decarbonization can still rock the boat for Filipino seafarers

'Ambulance chasing', decarbonization can still rock the boat for Filipino seafarers
Kaycee Valmonte - April 4, 2023 |

MANILA, Philippines — Keeping more Filipinos employed on the world's ships will need more than reforms to maritime education and training programs, industry leaders said, adding Filipino seafarers face more challenges as global shipping changes.

These include global changes to the supply chain to lower the shipping industry's carbon emissions and the issue of "ambulance chasing" — a term used for lawyers who persuade workers injured on the job to seek monetary damages — that can drive shipping companies to seek sailors elsewhere.

Philippines commits to better training for seafarers after EU reprieve

While workers deserve compensation for work-related injuries, the shipping industry sees "ambulance chasers" as seeking large settlements for even minor injuries.

"Let’s see this as a beginning of a new chapter to make sure that the Filipino seafarers continue to maintain their position as Number One in the world," Natalie Shaw, director for employment affairs at the International Chamber of Shipping, said in a press briefing with the Department of Migrant Workers on Monday.

There are around hundreds of thousands of Filipino seafarers deployed around the world, but Shaw said that ensuring future employment "does need focus on education, training, mitigating ambulance chasing, and doing all the things which we’re working with and starting to look in which employers are committed to making sure will happen in joint partnership with the Filipino government."

The European Commission last week said it will continue recognizing the seafarer certificates issued by the Philippines to masters and officers. The decision cleared around 50,000 Filipino seafarers serving onboard EU-flag vessels.

Migrant Workers Secretary Susan "Toots" Ople said they expect a "resurgence" of the demand for Filipino seafarers. The Philippines has been the top source of seafarers globally, with around 380,000 Filipinos already deployed.

Education and training challenges

Beginning with partners back home, the DMW said it will be meeting with the Department of Transportation, the Maritime Industry Authority, and the Commission on Higher Education, among other related agencies, to discuss ways forward "so everything can be synchronized."

The country still needs to fix six issues pointed out by the European Maritime Safety Agency, which include how the country facilitates the examination and assessment of competence, its monitoring, supervision and evaluation of training and assessment as well as the onboard training of its seafarers.

"[The deficiencies were] the basis for the proposal to withdraw the recognition of the certificates," Ambassador for the European Delegation to the Philippines Luc Veron said in an interview with CNN Philippines' "The Source" on Tuesday. "These are the areas that we will continue to monitor."

International stakeholders on Monday noted that the problem was not in Filipino seafarers' competence, but rather the lack of consistency among programs offered by different maritime schools in the Philippines.

"The Philippines continues to maintain its leadership because it has a number of institutions that do the right thing, they do it at the right level, and we continue to employ [graduates] from those institutions," Francesco Gargiulo, CEO of the International Maritime Employers’ Council.

"The issue we have is not all [seafarer graduates from the Philippines] are at the same level," he added.

Keeping up with global demand

Helio Vicente, senior manager for Policy and Employment Affairs at the International Chamber of Shipping, said that the industry is expecting a shortfall of 90,000 officers by 2026. He said the industry "must significantly increase training and recruitment levels" to avoid the large deficit.

While the Philippines is already an industry leader when it comes to producing excellent seafarers, Vicente said ship owners are looking at other "unconventional seafaring nations" to fill the gap. Beyond this though, more training involving new skills would be needed to face the evolving industry.

"Any seafaring nations that are facing major issues now is likely to face even bigger issues when the process of decarbonizing the industry, which is already underway, is really ramped up come 2050 when targets are expected to be met," Vicente said.

"Their skills will be entirely different, the industry will look entirely different, [and] their training requirements will be entirely different."

The DMW is set to meet with its international partners for a workshop in June to help improve the country’s seafarer programs.
Addressing ‘ambulance chasing’

Meanwhile, stakeholders said the "single biggest issue" is the prevalence of ambulance chasing in work-related injuries.

"That’s the reason why a number of our members, maritime employers have decided to shift their manpower resource away from the Philippines and towards sometimes less qualified manpower sources and it’s a very frustrating issue," Gargiulo said, adding that most of the money paid for claims "ends up in the pockets of lawyers."

Ambulance chasing persists in the country despite a law passed in 2015, the Republic Act 10706, or an Act Protecting Seafarers Against Ambulance Chasing and Imposition of Excessive Fees. The law also details penalties, such as a fine of up to P100,000 as well as imprisonment.

Vicente said that Filipino seafarers account for 14.4% of people employed in the global shipping industry, down from 20% partly because of ambulance chasing.

"In our eyes, in the eyes of our members, [the ambulance chasing issue] is much bigger than the EMSA audit," Gargiulo of the maritime employers' council said.