Competency clampdown

With the EC about to announce whether it intends to ban Filipino seafarers from EU-flagged ships, urgent moves are underway in the Philippines to address long-term systemic failures in the country’s maritime training and qualifications programmes. 

With the EC about to announce whether it intends to ban Filipino seafarers from EU-flagged ships, urgent moves are underway in the Philippines to address long-term systemic failures in the country’s maritime training and qualifications programmes. 

Last year, the European Commission (EC) published a report setting out a list of serious deficiencies, it says, that exist in the training of Filipino seafarers.

The report pointed to flaws in the programmes at several leading Philippine maritime education institutions, and relate specifically to guidelines mandated by the International Convention on Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping for Seafarers (STCW). 

The findings of the report were based on an audit carried out by the European Maritime Safety Agency (EMSA) — the EC agency tasked with enforcing EU legislation to reduce marine accidents, injury and pollution.  

The EC has indicated that the ongoing situation with the Philippines has finally led it to seriously consider whether or not it should now ban Filipino seafarers from all European Union (EU) flagged ships until the country can successfully resolve the problems raised.  

If an EC ban were to go ahead, more than 50,000 Filipino seafarers would lose their jobs — equivalent to one in five of all crew currently working on EU-flagged vessels.  

A potential ban could also lead to Filipino seafarers being excluded from the ‘white list’ created by the International Maritime Organization (IMO) to identify Member States that are STCW compliant. Criteria for ‘white list’ compliance include having appropriate seafarer licensing systems, appropriate oversight of training centres, and strong processes for certificate revalidation. 

The EMSA says it has now audited the Philippines’ maritime educational system on several occasions since 2006, and in that time the nation has never been able to prove that it has adequately addressed any of the non-conformity complaints raised in a sustainable way.  

“The latest audit was very extensive and the EC, assisted by legal and maritime experts, is now analysing it carefully with the intention of announcing its final decision by the end of the first quarter of 2023,” explains EC representative, Celia Dejond. 

Valuable work 

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European Maritime Safety Agency (EMSA) Credit: Shutterstock

Data from the UN Conference on Trade and Development shows that the Philippines is the world's largest provider of seafarers, with around 400,000 Filipino seafarers — more than a quarter of all global merchant shipping crew — currently working on foreign-flagged vessels. 

Filipino seafarers are considered an essential part of the nation’s economy, with the latest figures from the Philippine Central Bank indicating that they send home an average total of around $6.54 billion each year. 

High level meetings 

During a recent hearing in the Philippines’ Senate, the migrant workers assistant secretary Jerome Pampolina warned the government that 2022 was the final year marked by EMSA for compliance; predicting a ‘domino effect’ on the country’s other maritime sectors. 

Days later, the Philippine’s president, Ferdinand Marcos Jr., flew to Belgium to hold urgent face to face talks with EU officials and shipowners, to assure them that he and his country were fully committed to addressing the issues raised and making sure that its seafarers were complying properly with EU requirements and international maritime regulations. 

President Marcos also explained that his government has now begun bolstering the country’s maritime industry through a major new development plan which will include improved support for seafarers, the modernisation of its domestic shipping sector, improvements to its ports, and an enhancement of transport safety and security.    

“We hold a dominant position within global shipping, and I believe that we can do a great deal more,” he told those attending the meeting. “Our country’s seafarers provide quality service right across the globe and contribute importantly to our nation-building efforts.”  

The president has now tasked the Philippines’ Maritime Industry Authority (Marina) to ensure the country will soon be able to supply a ‘future-ready’ maritime workforce.   

Structural controversies  

Meanwhile, Marina has also just published a 200-page response to the EC’s concerns and announced details of the country’s new 10-year Maritime Industry Development Plan, which, it says, will accelerate and expand the nation’s shipping services, invest in its ship building, repair and breaking sectors, and promote the Philippines as the ‘human resource capital’ for the entire global maritime industry.  

“I believe, with all my heart, that the contents of this Marina response will help to raise the levels of our STCW compliance and substantially address all of the other issues raised by the EMSA,” said Marina’s recently out-going chief, retired vice admiral Robert Empedrad.  

Marina has, however, often been surrounded by controversy ever since its inception.  

Last year, Filipino seafarers protested against Marina’s re-introduction of a mandatory management level training course which, they argued, does nothing but add to their financial burdens.

In the meantime, Marina has introduced fines of up to $18,000 on seafarers or manning agencies caught in any act of deception in securing a certificate of proficiency. 

Critics of the Philippines’ national maritime training system also point out that the country depends entirely on privately-run educational institutions for providing training to the country’s seafarers and that the government has failed to maintain sufficient financial subsidies to help upgrade the institutions’ facilities.  

Japanese commitment 

Meanwhile, Japanese shipping firms have committed to carrying on hiring Filipino sailors.  

An estimated 6,600 currently work on Japanese flagged ships — around 75% of all crew. 

“Filipino seafarers are essential to the Japanese shipping industry,” explained Junichiro Ikeda, president of the Japanese Shipowners’ Association (JSA) and chairman of the Mitsui OSK Lines, in a recent meeting with President Marcos. “We therefore sincerely and strongly hope that there will continue to be a steady supply of professional and well-trained Filipino seafarers to work alongside us. We also expect the quality standards of Filipino seafarers to continue to improve, as the Philippine government continues to work hard to achieve this.”  

In return, President Marcos expressed his gratitude for the investments being made by Japanese shipowners in three maritime training schools training 1,200 cadets per school per year. 

The IMarEST works closely with its international partners to engage in professional development work across the marine industry and is keen to highlight the contributions of Filipino seafarers to the international shipping workforce. The Institute is looking forward to welcoming Chief Engineer Mark Laurilla (aka 'Chief MAKOi') as one of its guest speakers to its 118th Annual Dinner later this month. 

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Dennis O’Neill is a freelance journalist specialising in maritime.