maritime industry

[OPINION] The skills debate: The EMSA audit and employability of Filipino seafarers

Roderick Guerrero Galam
[OPINION] The skills debate: The EMSA audit and employability of Filipino seafarers
'It has nothing to do with skills. It has all to do with whether the country itself has met minimum global standards of maritime education, training, and certification.'

Vice President Leni Robredo’s statement on the competence of Filipino seafarers made in the March 19 Comelec PiliPinas Debate has generated some controversy. She said: “Yung maritime, grabe pa yung opportunity dito pero yung skills kulang.” The statement is innocuous but a few individuals with some influence and the party-list group, Marino, have responded to it negatively. 

At bottom is the fear of her statement’s impact on the employment prospects of Filipino seafarers especially in the context of the EMSA audit of Philippine compliance to international regulations governing the standard of maritime education and training. Her statement has also generated some reaction from both the ill- and well-meaning social media “commentariat” that reveals how misinformed both groups are. 

These misconceptions, including those made before the VP Robredo’s statement, need to be corrected. 

Misconception 1: The ‘skills are lacking’ statement paints a negative, if not degrading, picture of Filipino seafarers. It is destroying their reputation.

The hiring practices and preferences of shipowners and employers are not going to be changed suddenly by a single statement, even if it came from a high-ranking elected official, especially because they already have labor market intelligence built over years of being in the business. It is documented that in fact, as early as the mid- or late 1990s, some international shipowners and crewing agencies have refused to hire Filipino seafarers due to what they knew about the quality of the education and training of Filipino seafarers. It is also documented that although some would hire Filipino seafarers who graduated only from certain schools, they would never consider graduates of other schools.

What was long known within maritime industry circles was confirmed by a study commissioned by the International Maritime Organization (IMO) which, published in 2001, found widespread use of fake certificates in labor-supply countries. The Philippines was found to be the worst offender: 11,808 of 12,703 detections of fraudulent certificates were detected by the Philippines. This is equivalent to 93% of all fraudulent certificates. This earned us the dubious distinction of being the fake certificate capital of the world.

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Misconception 2: The ‘skills are lacking’ statement plays into the hands of the EMSA auditors.

The Philippines submitted two weeks ago its response to the European Commission Assessment Report (ECAR) on Philippine compliance to the main global instrument governing the standard of maritime education, training, and certification known as the International Convention on the Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping 1978 (or simply STCW 1978), as amended. The ECAR, which the country received in December 2021, was based on the 2020 audit conducted by the European Maritime Safety Agency (EMSA). 

EMSA’s first audit of the Philippines happened in 2006. Several more audits were done in 2010, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2017, and 2020 with each audit finding the country not having addressed fully all the areas of concern identified. In the 2006 audit, 206 non-compliance problems were identified. The 2020 audit identified less than 10 areas of concern.

EMSA’S audit is evidence-based. They know the problems that beset the education, training, and certification of Filipino seafarers. They identified them for us to address. There is no doubt that Filipino seafarers are hardworking, dedicated, resourceful, and resilient. But EMSA also knows the skeletons, and how many are there, in our closets. A statement even from Saint Peter vouching for or besmirching the skills of Filipino seafarers, at this stage, will not make a dent on the European Commission (not EMSA) which will decide on whether the country can continue to supply seafarer officers for EU-flagged vessels.

Misconception 3: The EMSA has no jurisdiction over maritime schools in the Philippines.

This statement questions the legitimacy of the EMSA audits. The Philippines is a signatory to the STWC Convention 1978. As such, it must comply with it. 

What is this convention? The IMO adopted in 1978 the Standards of Training, Certification, and Watchkeeping (STCW) Convention. It promotes the safety of life and property at sea and the protection of the marine environment by laying down the basic and minimum standards of maritime education, training, certification, and watch-keeping. Scholars have pointed out that its intention was to raise the standard of maritime education and training in labor-supply countries that were at that time thought to be providing poor quality of training. 

The EMSA audit of the Philippines was based on Directive 2001/25/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council on the minimum level of training of seafarers. Directive 2001/25 authorizes the European Commission to assess training and certification systems in third countries to verify compliance to the STCW Convention. EU-wide recognition allows Member States to recognize certificates issued by third countries.

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Misconception 4: It is only during the current administration of President Rodrigo Duterte that problems first identified in 2006 [the first EMSA audit] are being seriously addressed.

A major issue identified by the EMSA audits was that there was no single authority to oversee Philippine compliance with the STCW Convention. The Maritime Training Council (MTC) was created in 1984, when the Convention came into force, to take charge of this responsibility. However, it was composed of 11 government agencies with different and overlapping mandates, making the implementation of the Convention fragmented. Conflicts and turfing were rife. Oversight was impossible, resulting in incoherent policies and regulations. 

In 2012, President Benigno Aquino signed Executive Order No.75 transferring the functions of the MTC to the Maritime Industry Authority (MARINA). However, five agencies of the MTC (CHED, NTC, TESDA, DOH, PRC) had legally mandated STCW functions that EO75 could not supersede and which only another law could. In 2014, Republic Act 10635 was signed into law, designating and establishing MARINA, one of the eleven original agencies that composed MTC, as the single maritime administration responsible for the implementation and enforcement of the STCW Convention, as amended. All functions pertaining to the implementation of the STCW vested in other agencies in the MTC were transferred to MARINA. 

The signing of RA10635 in 2014 and its full implementation in 2015 was a landmark achievement towards Philippine compliance to the STCW Convention. It was certainly during the term of President Benigno Aquino (2010-2016) that major steps were taken by the MARINA (under Max Mejia) to address EMSA’s findings. Indeed, Patrick Verhoeven, secretary general of the European Community Shipowners’ Association (ECSA) stated in 2014, “As of 2012, the Philippine maritime administration has gone through a genuine paradigm shift.” 

In September 2018, President Rodrigo Duterte signed Executive Order No.63 strengthening the MARINA as single maritime administration. EO63 gave the MARINA (with its partner agency, the CHED), the authority to close non-compliant maritime higher education institutions (MHEIs). With this Executive Order, substandard maritime higher education institutions could no longer question in court the authority of MARINA-CHED to order their closure.

What is objectionable with ‘kulang sa skills?’

The criticism against the vice president is misplaced. For one thing, she is not wrong to say there is a lack of skills. There is indeed a lack of skills or skilled seafarers (that is trained and certified) in the officer ranks (captain, chief engineer, chief mate/first officer, first engineer, etc) where the employment opportunities are. There is an excess in the hundreds of thousands of Filipino seafarers in the ratings positions (non-officer ranks) such as AB (able-bodied seaman, OS (ordinary seaman), oiler, fitter, etc. 

For many years now, the global maritime industry has been worried about a global shortage of marine or seafarer officers. Many shipowners and shipping employers’ associations have been sponsoring maritime education students to have access to a steady supply of future seafarer officers. 

The criticism is also misplaced because the EMSA audit, which critics are using to justify their stance, is not about individual skills. It is not only about the qualifications of individual seafarers that make them employable. The EMSA audit is about whether the country that provided their education and training as well as certified both is credible. Only Filipino seafarer officers who number in the 20,000s are at risk of losing employment on EU-registered ships. They may have worked for many years on these vessels, and certainly have demonstrated their competence. 

Nevertheless, they are in such an uncertain position because the Philippines has not demonstrated its competence, that is, its full compliance with the STCW Convention. Its citizen-seafarers therefore could lose the legitimacy and validity of their education and training. In this context, their employability has nothing to do here with their skills. It has nothing to do with skills

It has all to do with whether the country itself has met minimum global standards of maritime education, training, and certification. In other words, it is not the seafarers themselves that are being evaluated but the labor-supply country whose citizen-officers are responsible for ships that cost, at minimum, $100 million. A maritime accident could cause catastrophic environmental damage. Hence the importance of the country becoming certified compliant. It means it has the appropriate infrastructure and system to properly educate and train its seafarers. 

The country is “kulang pa sa skills.” The current MARINA administration (under Vice Admiral Robert Empedrad) has demonstrated appropriate urgency in instituting and implementing the necessary corrective measures to address the European Commission Assessment Report. 

Will the country finally achieve full compliance? Watch this space. –

Roderick Galam is a Senior Lecturer in Sociology in the School of Social Sciences at Oxford Brookes University. His research on international labor migration and youth transitions have focused on Filipinos working in the global maritime industry. 

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