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Jarius Bondoc: Make it easy for shipowners to pick up/let off seafarers

Make it easy for shipowners to pick up/let off seafarers
GOTCHA - Jarius Bondoc - November 15, 2023 |

How can government ensure more overseas job placements for 490,000 Filipino seafarers? How can it lower their costs of boarding and debarking at international ports?

Here’s a quick way. Slash the atrociously high port rates for international ships to enter domestic harbors. That will encourage foreign shipowners to pick up and let off seamen in Philippine ports.

Once that’s done, seamen no longer will have to fly to and from Europe and the Americas to start or end nine-month shipboard stints. They can do it in Manila, Subic, Laoag, Batangas, Puerto Princesa, Legazpi, Cebu, Iloilo, Cagayan de Oro or Davao.

Boarding or debarking per seafarer cost hundreds of thousands of pesos. It includes roundtrip international airfare, hotel bookings, transfers and food. Upright shipowners absorb such costs. Shabby ones tacitly deduct the amounts from seamen’s pay.

Foreign shipowners and seamen will save such sums if picked up and dropped off in the Philippines. Former foreign secretary Teddyboy Locsin already fixed the process during the pandemic lockdowns.

At that time paranoid countries barred foreign vessels from entering seaports. Others required long COVID-19 testing for crewmen. Shipboard stints of Filipinos, the majority of international seafarers, were over-extended to 18 months. Meanwhile, countless replacement countrymen could not board because prohibited from landing in foreign seaports.

Despite circuitous treaties, Locsin swiftly arranged for Philippine stopovers of international vessels. Crisis abated.

Then came put-offs. Rent-seekers reinvaded the ports post-pandemic.

Example is what was reported in this column. One of the world’s most modern and equipped foreign ships was charged P500,000 to be towed into and out of La Union Harbor last March 31, 2023.

Strictly speaking, M/V Fugro Equator did not need any towing service. It can adroitly maneuver in and out of harbors, and simultaneously tow several submerged equipment.

M/V Fugro Equator did not even have to berth in La Union. It was in Luzon waters to search for a sunken World War II wreckage. To resupply, it could have accommodated choppers or speedboats while offshore.

But then, 19 Filipino crewmen were to board and four to debark. It was the first such event for La Union harbor, government-owned Poro Point Management Corp. (PPMC) hailed in its website. So Fugro Equator sailed into harbor, amid fanfare of Transport, Labor, Foreign Affairs, Customs, Coast Guard, Immigration and Quarantine officials.

Behind the scenes, Fugro Equator was made to hire a local tugboat to tow it into and out of the wharf. Cost: P500,000. Tug owner Polaris Top Marine Services Corp.’s “assistance duration,” as stated in its billing, usage slip and official receipt: 43 minutes, plus 18 minutes tug running time from base to ship and back to base.

That’s a staggering P8,196.72 per minute of unnecessary but forced tugboat towing.

Government requires such towing in the country’s international seaports supposedly for safety. It contracts private harbor pilots for the service. The pilots in turn subcontract the tugboats.

Contractors board but do not actually pilot the vessels entering the harbor. They merely give instructions to vessel skippers. They’re supposed to know the harbor like the palm of their hand. Still, shipowners complain of being misguided by harbor pilots to ram wharfs or scrape shallow bottoms, so must pay for own damage.

PPMC said in a Letter to the Editor that harbor pilotage is handled by San Fernando Pilots Association Co. It claimed to impose on foreign vessels the same rates as Philippine Ports Authority. SFPAC supposedly charged Fugro Equator P35,923.14 for harbor pilotage, from which PPMC received ten-percent cut of P3,592.31.

Fugro Equator’s shipping agent transacted the P500,000 tug towing with Polaris, PPMC alleged. Still, it said, it will investigate.

Such probe should delve into who required the costly tug rental and ties between SFPAC and tug owners. It has been five months, yet PPMC has not contacted me for documents in my possession.

Meanwhile, shipowners are still talking about that P500,000 affair. President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. and Speaker Martin Romualdez said last June 25, National Seafarers Day, that they want to help them. Labor and transport bureaucrats must advise the two high officials that arbitrary port charges not only discourage pickups/drop offs of seafarers, but also inflate prices of food and goods.