Why Filipino seafarers are most preferred in the world, yet education and training is f***d


LOOK at the house and buildings that you live in, the cars and trains that you ride, the food that you eat, the clothes you wear and the mobile phones and computers that connect you everywhere.

Imagine where these products or raw materials are manufactured and how they are transported to where you are right now. Most likely they are shipped as 80 percent of global trade passes through the seas.

Behind these daily trading of trillions of dollars of goods are 1.89 million seafarers operating the global fleet.

One or two of these seafarers are Filipinos, making the Philippines the largest source of maritime workforce worldwide, the United Nations Conference and Trade and Development (Unctad) said.

If there is one single biggest contribution of Filipinos to world trade in recent history, it’s probably the seafarers.

So when the European Commission said in December 2021 that it would ban Filipino seafarers from European-flagged ships for deficiencies in training and education, people who are not familiar with the maritime industry were wondering—“What’s wrong?”

Why are Filipinos the most preferred seafarers in the world’s shipping industry and yet the education and training they receive falls below international standards?

Global seafaring standards

Seafaring is one of the most difficult professions in the world. It needs a lot of physical stamina and mental discipline to be able to safety steer the ship to the ports, prevent disasters that could kill people and damage the environment, as well as maintain the ships to be efficient and profitable.

The International Maritime Organization, a specialized agency of the UN, has put together a standard for all countries to determine if someone is fit to become a seafarer. This set of standards is embodied under an international convention called the Standards for Training, Certification and Watchkeeping for Seafarers (STCW). It is like the driver’s license on steroids for all seafarers. You cannot be a crew or officer of a ship unless you have the ICTW, and this is being renewed every five years.

            Typically, STCW trainings include:

            • survival at sea

            • fire prevention

            • firefighting

            • first aid and CPR

            • launching and handling rescue craft

            • ship-specific familiarization

            • personal and social responsibilities

            • marine environment awareness

            • security awareness and training in case of piracy and hijacking threats

            • medical fitness

These standards apply to all crew, even, for example, for waiters on cruise ships who are not likely to be required to perform firefighting or marine pollution duties. But every rank is given a minimum set of education and training requirements for STCW certification. Masters are required more training compared to the able body seaman, the lowest-ranked crew on ship.

In the Philippines, the Maritime Industry Authority (Marina) has been designated as the “single” and “central administration” to ensure that the Philippines is compliant with the STCW Convention. The peculiar setup, though, is that the Commission on Higher Education (CHED) has administrative control over all colleges and universities in the country, including maritime schools that provide higher learning education.

Marina and CHED set specific guidelines and issue memoranda to all maritime schools and training centers on how to implement the STCW.

As part of the agreement, all countries who are signatories to the STCW Convention are required to recognize the certification issued by other contracting parties. The IMO, on one hand, is tasked to check if all the countries are STCW-compliant.

Here comes now the European Union, with 27 member-states, the world’s biggest trading bloc and whose global trade is 75 percent dependent on the maritime industry.

The EU has its own set of standards, but when it comes to maritime safety, it defers to the STCW Convention. Fine, it said. But allow us to check if countries sending seafarers to our countries are indeed following the international rules.

Every 10 years, the European Maritime Safety Agency (EMSA) conducts inspections to the Philippines, being the largest supplier of seafaring manpower in the world.

What EMSA found out

As early as 2006, EMSA had found four deficiencies in the education and training of Filipino cadets as against with international standards set by STCW. In subsequent audits, the deficiencies increased up to 63 areas that need improvement.

The BusinessMirror has gotten copies of the EMSA audits and most of the time, the deficiencies are a matter of governance and not competence.

 “We have very good plans on paper, on how we implement the training and education. But when the EMSA auditors checked on individual schools, they asked, ‘How come there are no reports on how you were able to accomplish these tasks?’” Cristina Garcia, president of Blue Ocean Marine and Offshore Solutions Inc., said.

Garcia, who is also president of the Association of Licensed Manning Agencies (ALMA Maritime Group), said EMSA was very strict in cross-referencing plans of action with the actual implementation. The deficiencies, she stressed, are mainly on the implementation.

For instance, in 2014, “the main and most serious” among the EU concerns was the implementation of the monitoring of education and training by the administration.

 “In particular, although the authorities had presented monitoring plans that appeared to be feasible and viable, there are concerns if these plans are actually being carried out and if the deficiencies identified during these audits are being followed up,” the EC Directorate-General for Mobility and Transport explained.

The EC also said that Marina and CHED should “demonstrate” they have “all the necessary technical qualified human resources” to be able to monitor the high number of maritime education and training institutions.

As of 2022, there were 83 accredited maritime schools in the Philippines.

Six follow-up inspections since 2006—2010, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2017 and 2020—were conducted by EMSA in the Philippines. EMSA noted some “progress” in every inspection, but still too many deficiencies to be considered “fully compliant” with the minimum standards of STCW.

 “Like any inspector or customer, you keep telling your supplier, these are things you need to improve and the supplier says, ‘Yes, yes, yes.’ They keep on coming back. But nothing is happening. So I guess they got fed up and said, ‘If you do not improve on these, we will not recognize the certificates issued by the Philippine government,” retired Navy chief Vice Admiral Eduardo Ma. Santos told CNN Philippines.

Santos, now the executive vice president of the Filipino seafarers’ federation, the Association of Marine Officer’s and Seamen’s Union of the Philippines (Amosup), thinks the root cause of the governance problem is the lack of consistency in the implementation of the STCW. He noted that there have been nine Marina administrators since the STCW Convention was amended in 2010 in Manila.

 “Just imagine the different changes that need to happen, but in terms of administering, new guys cannot see the historical background that are happening,” he said.

There were also five changes in the maritime education curriculum since 2010.

 “We saw the behavioral problem…. Their voices seem to be in unison when you look down at the lower levels, there seems to be lack of coordination and harmony. Everybody is talking about harmonization, but it doesn’t seem to be all the harmony that we need,” he added.

EU Ambassador to Manila Luc Veron said that in the 2020 audit, the EMSA saw “significant” progress in Marina’s monitoring, supervision and evaluation of training and assistance.

This prompted the EC to extend its recognition of the STCW certificates, allowing the 50,000 Filipino masters and officers to continue working in EU-flagged vessels, averting what Migrant Workers Secretary Susan “Toots” Ople said could have been a “crisis of monumental proportions.”

Best seafarers, but schools suck

INTERNATIONAL shipowners said they prefer to hire Filipino seafarers because of their competence.

Besides that, Santos said Filipinos’ “social qualities” can deal with cross cultures.

 “One thing that is very clear to employers is that the Philippines is not keen when it comes to uniform when it comes to education,” Francesco Gargiulo, chief executive officer of the International Maritime Employers’ Council (IMEC) said.

To illustrate, he said, if there are 30,000 Filipino graduates of maritime schools every year, only 3,000 or 10 percent are hired in the international fleet.

 “What it tells you is that there are institutions in the Philippines that have done rightly, that have the right standards, that are loved by our employers.  And also, there are institutions that have not done the same level and this happens when an organization like EMSA comes in. They don’t look at the top 10. They look at the entire country,” Gargiulo said.

He said the Philippines continues to produce the best seafarers in the world because some institutions do the right thing.

 “The shipping industry needs more employees than we currently have. So we would love to employ 30,000 graduates, rather than only 3,000. The issue that we have is that the 30,000 graduates don’t have the same level,” Gargiulo said.

Looking ahead

NOW that EC has extended its recognition of the Philippine STCW certificate, the more difficult task, Gargiulo said, should be addressed and that is to fully comply with the six areas that the EMSA said still needs improvement:

            • Monitoring, supervision and evaluation of training and assessment

            • Examination and assessment of competence

            • Program and course design and approval

            • Availability and use of training facilities and simulators

            • On-board training

            • Issue, revalidation and registration of certificates and endorsements.

 “This is the most dangerous time now for a football team after you scored the goal. We need to make sure to pursue the objectives that the advisory board has set itself,” he added.

Edgar Flores, general manager and ship owner representative of Eastern Mediterranean Manning Agency, told the BusinessMirror that the most difficult among the six deficiencies would be compliance with the on-board training.

Assuming that the Philippines produces 30,000 marine graduates a year and every one needs to train onboard, the Philippines would need 600 training ships.

Even assuming that only second-hand training ships are bought, “how about the maintenance? It would also cost five times the price of the ship.” Another issue: “Where do you put the training ship? As it is now, our harbors are already congested,” he said, partly in Filipino.

He suggested that the Philippines remove onboard training as part of the STCW requirement.

He said other seafaring labor supplier countries like China and India do not require onboard training.

 “The poor students even have to pay local ship owners so they can have onboard training experience,” he added.

Schools should only be required to buy simulators, which can be accessed by all students.

The DMW said they will start coordinating with the EU, international ship owners and manning agencies on how to move past the STCW requirement.

Ople said she will meet with the maritime industry as soon as she arrives from Geneva, Switzerland, next week.

Image credits: Oleksandr Kalinichenko | Dreamstime.com, Anatoly Menzhiliy | Dreamstime.com, Photomyeye | Dreamstime.com