Rough seas for the Philippine seafaring sector

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ATTY. BRENDA V. PIMENTEL

(First of two parts)
When I was requested by some friends in the maritime industry on my thoughts about House Bill (HB) No. 192 creating a Department of Migration and Development, I was unsure I should even look it up as I do not see any direct connect to maritime. I keep a compilation of maritime bills filed during the current Congress and I skipped that bill as I did not think it will find relevance to the maritime industry. The first few paragraphs of the draft bill seemed to confirm my initial thoughts that it has nothing to do with maritime until I read Section 14 on the Transfer of Bureaus, Offices and Agencies. Specifically, I was stunned by items 14.l and 14.m contemplating the transferof the National Maritime Polytechnic and the offices of Maritime Industry Authority (MARINA) in relation to international seafaring to the proposed Department of Migration and Development.

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MARINA as single maritime administration for STCW
Was it not only in the immediate past in July 2013 that Republic Act (RA) No. 10635 entitled “An Act Establishing the Maritime Industry Authority as the Single Maritime Administration Responsible for the Implementation and Enforcement of the 1978 International Convention on Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping [STCW] for Seafarers, as amended, and International Agreements or Covenants Related thereto,” was enacted? RA 10635 in designating MARINA as the single maritime administration in the implementation and enforcement of the STCW Convention aims to simplify Philippine processes and regulations that govern the training and certification of Filipino seafarers, as provided under the globally adopted standards of competency and qualifications for seafarers.

The enactment of RA 10635 is a recognition of the important character of the STCW Convention which for many years the Philippines failed to realize or conveniently ignored: that it is a maritime transport safety convention and not a labor convention. Such distorted view subsisted for many years with the maritime administration (MARINA) left to being a silent observer in its implementation. It was only when questions were raised by the international shipping community, primarily those employing Filipino seafarers, on the ability of the Philippines to properly implement the STCW convention that a serious assessment of its implementation took place. And designating MARINA as the single maritime administration to implement the STCW convention was one major policy reform undertaken to assuage shipowners’ doubts on the competence of Filipino seafarers. The Philippines deploys a significant number of seafarers in international shipping; in fact, it is said that one in every five seafarers onboard ships plying international waters is a Filipino.

Four years after RA 10635 became law, MARINA still has a lot to fix in giving effect to the convention. What is important is that the agency tasked to handle its implementation has as its core functions maritime safety, shipping efficiency and protection of the environment from ship-generated pollutants—thematic issues which the convention aims to address.

Impact of pulling out STCW implementation from the maritime administration
A reading of HB 192 places its primary concern on ensuring the protection, safety, general welfare and security of Filipino migrants and their families. It speaks of migrants in general terms regardless of whether one is employed or a member of the family of a migrant worker. It is primarily focused in seeking the best terms for Filipinos who are seeking employment outside of the country, and their families.

We need to understand that the STCW convention starts its application at that stage when a high school student decides to pursue a shipboard career. The convention provides the minimum standards that a seafarer must comply for him to qualify as a merchant mariner. HB 192 covers the employment phase and it focuses on conditions of work that are outside the purview of the STCW convention.

The STCW convention stipulates a package of knowledge, skills, attitudinal make-up, managerial abilities which a seafarer must possess. The convention prescribes the certification of seafarers which are primarily attached to related international standards such as those of the International Convention on the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS), Collision Regulations, International Convention on the Prevention of Marine Pollution from Ships (MARPOL), Loadline Convention and other maritime conventions. How a migrant department or office that is not expected to deal with these very specialized aspects of maritime administration, is able to discharge functions relating to determination of a seafarer’s competency is a big question.

Countries deploying seafarers are subject to a mandatory audit by the International Maritime Organization (IMO) in respect of the implementation of the STCW convention to determine the ability of a country to deploy competent and qualified seafarers. For the purpose, a “white list” is maintained by the IMO and only those countries which are found giving full effect to the STCW Convention are listed therein. The Philippines is at the moment in the IMO white list.

Parallel to the IMO white listing scheme is the right of a flag-state to determine compliance with the STCW convention of the country supplying seafarers to its fleet. This means dealing with the maritime administration exercising the STCW functions in the country of nationality of the seafarer. In the case of the European countries, such determination is given to the European Maritime Safety Agency (EMSA). The Philippines is at the moment completing the audit process of the EMSA and it is ludicrous to ever think IMO or EMSA conferring with the Department of Migration. Transferring the specialized functions pertaining to the STCW to a non-maritime department will be prejudicial to the interest of the Philippines as adverse results of STCW audits will disqualify the country from further deploying Filipino seafarers on ships engaged in international trade.

Aside from this immediate adverse effect of taking out from MARINA the STCW functions is reneging on the obligations and commitment of the Philippines as a member of IMO to give effect to conventions to which it is a party, including the STCW convention. For a country purporting to be a maritime nation, such shortcoming will have a negative effect in promoting its maritime endowments. We should be able to satisfactorily respond to questions such as, “How will the Philippines attract tourists to visit its islands when its ability to provide competent seafarers to its sea transport network is put to test? Are we ready to lose the hundreds of shipboard jobs held by Filipinos?”

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