“That’s exactly what we are. This is how they look at us. Numbers. Silver.”
That’s what Jay, a mate currently on board an international ship, told me when I mentioned that shipping was called a “6.5 billion dollar industry”. A graduate in philosophy magna cum laude from UST before doing a degree in maritime transport, this thoughtful sailor added: “Pangbalanse lang kami sa economy. Throw a little platitude on us and that is considered enough to recognize and appreciate us.
Historical operating experience
From 2013 to 2018, during my annual research visits, which lasted from three weeks to six months, and most recently in July 2022, I lived in dormitories with sailors and midshipmen in Manila. Living with them and talking to them gave me insight into what they think of the various institutions and actors involved in their maritime work. If there is one feeling they have in common for all of these institutions, it is a strong sense of exploitation, of being treated as a gatasanused to defend the interests of anyone except seafarers.
“pineperahan.” “Pinipiga hanggang sa wala nang mapiga.” “Pinapahirapan.”
This historic experience (after Neferti Tadiar) of exploitation has been going on for decades. Seafarers feel that the POEA, the Maritime Industry Authority (MARINA), recruitment agencies, maritime schools, seafarers’ unions, training centres, medical centers and list representatives of seafarer-focused parties all stand together to exploit them. This sense of prey and suffering is returning to them with the reinstatement of the mandatory Management Courses (MLC) for the certification of competency of Filipino seafarers.
Management level courses
MLCs are training courses taken by Filipino sailors who wish to advance in rank. They are taken by the deck and engine officers. They are part of the training and certification process for Filipino marine officers who will be involved in management level work (Captain/Captain, Chief Mate, etc.) aboard a vessel. They are expensive (probably too expensive) and time consuming. Some sailors I have spoken to have said that the courses can last anywhere from 30 to 70 days in total.
The financial burden as well as the time necessary for seafarers to spend time away from their families after spending a long time at sea have created hostility among seafarers towards them. This hostility was reinforced by the mediocrity (to use the word of an informant) of these formations (whether managerial or operational). Apparently many instructors had not sailed for years and therefore were unfamiliar with current practice and technology. Some training and assessment centers do not even require the participation of seafarers who have paid.
There are more stories of how and why seafarers view training and refresher courses as “walang kuwenta.” These irregularities and their generalization have convinced seafarers that these training and assessment centers are only defrauding them, with the connivance of manning agencies and even MARINA personnel. (To be sure, MARINA has implemented corrective actions to the findings of EMSA audits that correspond to these issues identified by seafarers).
It is therefore not surprising that the decision in May 2021 of the previous MARINA administration to make these MLCs non-mandatory met with universal approval from seafarers. Because they are no longer necessary, it was unnecessary for seafarers Filipinos to take them. Seafarers could save a lot of money on training, housing and other expenses, money that could be spent on more important undertakings such as building or repairing a house. They could spend more time with their spouse and children, family, girlfriends or boyfriends, rest and relax. The decision freed them from the clutches of training and assessment centers, removing a layer or actor involved in their exploitation and suffering. According to an informant, their withdrawal facilitated the change of crew as more sailors with the required qualifications and skills became available for deployment.
On August 28, 2022, MARINA reinstated MLCs as required courses. The decision is justified within the framework of the country’s compliance with the STCW convention of the International Maritime Organization. The Philippines must fully and effectively implement this international convention which globally regulates training, certification and watchkeeping standards for seafarers. Failure to do so risks removing the Philippines from the “white list” of seafarers. countries that can supply seafarers to the global maritime industry. The withdrawal risks destroying a $6.5 billion industry.
Those who oppose the return of MLCs argue that such training courses (including operational level courses) are not mentioned in the STCW Convention, particularly as amended in 2010 (Manila Amendments). However, the STCW convention requires minimum levels of knowledge, skills and abilities for marine officers performing managerial duties and responsibilities. These are not provided for in the country’s current maritime education curriculum. There is therefore a gap in the education and training of Filipino seafarers, which one of the EMSA inspections has identified.
To address this issue, which is a non-compliance with the STCW convention, training courses have been offered to seafarers (as they have left education) and the curriculum has been revised accordingly to provide these skills to students. To date, the program has not been revised to incorporate these changes. The country therefore has no choice but to reinstate the MLCs.
The country is awaiting the decision of the European Commission on whether or not to maintain the recognition of the Philippines as a labor supplying country. The decision will be based on the Philippines’ response, submitted in March 2022, to the European Commission’s Assessment Report (ECAR), which the country received in December 2021. The ECAR is based on the findings of the European Agency Maritime Security (EMSA) inspection of the country’s maritime infrastructure (education, training and certification) conducted in February-March 2020. The EC decision will be the culmination of the EC’s inspection of the country’s compliance with the STCW convention over a period of 15 years beginning in 2006. If the country fails to convince the EC that it has fully complied with the convention, Filipino marine officers will not be able to work on ships belonging to the European Union.
The International Maritime Organization (IMO) conducted in April 2022 an Independent Evaluation (IE) of the country’s implementation of the STCW Convention. It was this assessment that brought to light how the removal of MLCs contravenes the STCW Convention.
Winning the hearts and minds of Filipino sailors
The decision to reinstate the MLCs is fiercely opposed by Filipino sailors. The situation is not helped by the fact that they are re-instituted by a MARINA under an administrator widely known to own a maritime school and training center. My online conversations with seafarers and a quick look at maritime-focused Facebook pages (with followers ranging from 60,000 to around 1,460,000) reveal that seafarers have linked the administrator’s business interests and the return of such mandatory MLCs.
Even Jay, who has been one of my most insightful interlocutors, suspects that the profiteering training centers will be very busy again due to the appointment of the new administrator who he believes will have a favorable position towards the training centers. . He admits that seafarers like him will have no choice but to abide by MARINA’s political decisions, regardless of their opinions and feelings about the MLC. This feeling of being ignored and forced to submit or simply conform also breeds resentment towards the very institutions that are supposed to care for them.
What can MARINA do to make MLCs more acceptable, especially given the negative context of their reintegration, and easier for seafarers to respect?
- MARINA could first address the cost of these MLCs. It would be necessary to work with the training centers to cap the fees charged. It should strictly regulate training centers and assessment centers to ensure that seafarers receive quality training and are assessed properly to make these MLCs worth their time, money and effort.
- MARINA can also make it more convenient for seafarers to take these MLCs by allowing them to take the theoretical part of the course online, allowing them to stay at home with their families. It also allows them to save on living and accommodation costs. The courses could be developed and organized in such a way that all the practical aspects are covered in a block of time or as close together as possible at the end of the whole course. Seafarers from outside Manila will only need to travel to the capital to complete the practical elements of the course.
- MARINA could also ensure that regional sites are used as centers for practical assessments.
- MARINA should look into how often refresher courses are taken.
- Finally, MARINA should revise the country’s maritime education curriculum to incorporate the knowledge, skills and abilities targeted by the MLCs.
Despite the hostility towards the MLCs, there are also many sailors who accept that they are “part of the regulation” of the sector. MARINA should therefore make every effort to provide credible training that respects the dignity and professionalism of seafarers. It must put an end to the irregularities and profiteering that have made MLCs and other training courses such a scourge and such a burden on the lives of seafarers. The agency should strive to ensure that MLCs are seen only as a measure of compliance with the STCW Convention. – Rappler.com
Roderick Galam is a senior lecturer in sociology at Oxford Brookes University, UK.