IT should have been just a terribly unlucky coincidence that the head of the Maritime Industry Authority (Marina), Administrator Maximo Mejia, was out of the country on the day a local ferry met with tragedy just off the port of Ormoc City. Instead the incident, in the most horrifying way possible, throws the spotlight on the shortcomings of this important government agency and its chief.
As of yesterday (Friday) morning, 38 people were dead after a boat loaded with goods and passengers bound for the Camotes Islands capsized just after setting out from Ormoc. Although the investigation is still ongoing, there are indications from witnesses that the boat attempted an odd maneuver after it backed away from the pier, and exceeded its limits.
As the regulator of the maritime industry, Marina is ultimately responsible for determining what penalty, if any is warranted, should be meted out for anyone found at fault for the accident, and what corrections to existing regulations and standards ought to be made to improve safety. An accident resulting in 38 deaths is not an insignificant event, and while Marina is not officially responsible for conducting the investigation (that’s the job of the Coast Guard), one would think that the agency would be a bit more visible.
Instead, Mejia has been out of the country for three months on a lobbying campaign to be selected as the head of the UN’s International Maritime Organization, a post for which Transportation Secretary Joseph Emilio Abaya boasted Mejia was a “shoo-in,” and “the most qualified candidate,” being an internationally recognized expert in the maritime industry.
What the rest of the world seemed to recognize is that they absolutely did not want Maximo Mejia in charge of the IMO, because he received the least number of votes (out of six candidates) and was shown the door after the first round of voting among the 170 IMO member-states.
I’m sure to people like Secretary Abaya that outcome is mystifying. To be fair to Dr. Mejia, he does have an impressive CV: Graduate of the US Naval Academy, veteran of the Philippine Navy and Coast Guard, and a long-time professor of maritime law and policy at the World Maritime University in Mälmo, Sweden. On paper, he is eminently qualified not only to head this country’s maritime industry overseer, but the world body as well.
Unfortunately, Mejia has turned out to be yet another example of what can go wrong when an academician tries to do practical work. Under his watch, which began in May 2013, Marina has had a couple of embarrassing failures of the sort that attract unwelcome attention from the global marine sector, which has made working life difficult for the roughly 400,000 Filipinos manning the world’s merchant fleet.
The most notable scandal was Marina’s inability for a period of time last year to provide the Seafarer’s Identification and Record Book, an internationally recognized travel document that is more important to sailors than a passport. Having overlooked securing a contract with a printer to supply the Seaman’s Book, Marina instead borrowed a page from the Land Transportation Office and issued printed sheets instead, with the expectation—which, not surprisingly, turned out to be completely unfounded—that immigration and other officials elsewhere would accept them as a credible substitute for the booklet.
Barely two weeks after the embarrassing Seaman’s Book problem came to public attention, Mejia and Marina found themselves in the hot seat again, this time over a finding by the European Maritime Safety Agency (EMSA) that the Philippines was “failing to meet the qualifications set by European and international maritime safety standards,” which could have resulted in a ban on hiring Filipino seafarers, or even job losses among the 100,000 or so working on European-flagged vessels. Marina managed to prevent that from happening by demonstrating that at least a little progress had been made, but the Philippines remains under scrutiny, which a few seamen have said has made it tougher to land a job with certain carriers.
And as the icing on a cake left out in the rain, barely two months after the Seaman’s Book and EMSA issues erupted, Mejia and several other Marina officials were slapped with graft and nepotism charges before the Ombudsman for allegedly promoting someone without even basic qualifications (such as a bachelor’s degree).
Now that Mejia’s personal career aspirations have been emphatically snubbed by the world maritime body, perhaps the professor can return to his desk and work a little harder on converting theory to practice; several hundred thousand seafarers and their families, to say nothing of the even greater numbers of sea-going travelers, would probably appreciate the attention.