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Great Lakes Labor: Filipino Mariners Can Now Sail On Canadian Merchant Ships

Great Lakes Labor: Filipino Mariners Can Now Sail On Canadian Merchant Ships
John Konrad May 13, 2023

In a move to tackle an acute mariner shortage accentuated by the rapid retirement of boomers, Canada has signed an unprecedented agreement with the Philippines, allowing Filipino merchant mariners to serve on Canadian-flagged vessels. This marks a significant shift in international labor arrangements, opening new doors for the robust Filipino seafarer population, but causing worry among Canadian Merchant Mariners that wages could fall.

“Various sectors and government departments have expressed to Transport Canada the urgent necessity of sourcing qualified sailors to take on numerous roles, both on ships and ashore, to bolster maritime operations,” relayed Hicham Ayoun, a spokesperson for Transport Canada, in a recent statement sent to the CBC.

Signed on March 29, the mutual agreement between the nations acknowledges the competency certificates of Filipino sailors, also referred to as the Standard for Training, Certification, and Watchkeeping for Seafarers (STCW). This effectively enables Filipino mariners to secure work on Canadian-flagged vessels with a work visa, obviating the need to first obtain permanent residency status.

Bruce Burrows, CEO of the Chamber of Marine Commerce, which primarily represents shipping interests in the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Seaway, shed light on the need for this initiative. “We’ve been seeking assistance from Transport Canada to facilitate the immigration of more foreign workers to man our vessels, including officers and regular sailors, as we face a severe personnel deficit in Canada’s maritime industry,” he said.

Burrows anticipates the arrival of Filipino sailors later this year, a development he argues will benefit both ship owners and the wider North American supply chain, especially in the Great Lakes region.

Details of this agreement were unveiled earlier this month in a Transport Canada ship safety bulletin. Although the Canadian Merchant Service Guild, which represents a majority of ships’ officers and pilots in the Canadian maritime industry, did not respond to CBC’s requests for comment, Canadian mariners gCaptain talked to are worried this will further depress wages and make the industry less attractive for Canadian youth.

Canada has already established comparable reciprocal agreements with several nations, including Australia, France, Norway, Ukraine, Georgia, and the United Kingdom. There are also reports suggesting that the Canadian Coast Guard is contemplating the inclusion of other foreign sailors. However, this agreement with the Philippines stands out due to the country’s significant position in the global maritime industry – it boasts the largest population of merchant sailors worldwide. As China’s merchant navy expands, many Filipino sailors are finding their employment opportunities shrinking. This is further exacerbated by increased pressures from China – such as tightened travel restrictions and national restrictions in Chinese-owned ports – as it vies to become the leading seafaring nation globally.

This decision may also invite broader security considerations. As the United States and Canada strive to bolster their relations with the Philippines amidst escalating tensions with China, this move gains further significance. Filipino merchant mariners, numbering in the hundreds of thousands, serve on ships belonging to nearly every nation, operating in almost all major ports and shipyards globally. These mariners undergo rigorous training, and all officers are proficient in English. Such characteristics have led some Pentagon insiders, in conversations with gCaptain, to propose that this body of mariners could constitute the world’s most substantial, yet untapped, intelligence network.

However, it remains ambiguous whether this initiative has the backing of Canadian military leaders. While it might provide a solution to the pressing mariner deficit, there is a flip side. A reduced pool of homegrown merchant mariners implies fewer Canadian citizens can be called upon in a conflict scenario. Furthermore, this proposal does not suggest other potential strategies, such as increased investments in regional merchant marine academies and trade schools, that could foster domestic talent in the maritime industry.

One facet that remains unquestioned is the proficiency of Filipino merchant mariners, who are widely recognized for their extensive training and solid reputation within the industry. Bruce Burrows underscored that Canada would not have forged this agreement if there were any doubts concerning the competency of these sailors. He asserted, “Our ship owners, operating on a global scale, are well-acquainted with numerous Filipino mariners. Their demonstrated competence is widely acknowledged, and we are enthusiastic about welcoming new Filipino applicants to our ranks.”