The Philippines’ recent announcement to become the world’s major crew change hub, while initially received positively by maritime stakeholders, was greeted with uncertainties by several foreign and local employers particularly those who have experienced the realities of hiring Filipino seafarers and conducting crew change in the country during this pandemic times.
Last week, the Maritime Industry Authority (Marina) during the 39th Meeting of the Maritime Transport Working Group of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) said the country has already opened the Ports of Manila, Bataan, and Subic for international crew change and is looking to open more of its international ports for crew change purposes.
According to Marina Administrator Robert Empedrad, “Our maritime sector is working diligently to activate crew change hubs in the country to give maritime vessels the avenue to refresh their manpower, and to provide relief to our hardworking seafarers,” Empedrad said.
The Administrator added that Marina continues to cooperate with other member states of the International Maritime Organization (IMO) to facilitate the safe movement of seafarers during deployment and repatriation with emphasis on their welfare as key workers.
The virtual meeting was attended by representatives from China, Japan, Korea, and the International Maritime Organization (IMO).
On the other hand, foreign employers have expressed concerns that the Philippines cannot handle crew changes “as the matter goes beyond port accessibilities.”
Increasing cases among PH seafarers
“Too many Filipino seafarers test positive with the coronavirus disease 2019 (Covid-19).
There is about five percent who tested positive amongst our seafarers, while other companies reported 10,” an owner’s representative of a shipping company, who refused to be named, revealed.
“One-time testing is not enough to ensure that the seafarers we deploy are Covid-19 free.
They should first be tested at the start of the 14-day mandatory quarantine, then another test 72 hours before joining the vessel. Many companies might not be able to afford to test each of their crew twice and paying for their hotel accommodations for two weeks but it’s something we have to do to guarantee their health,” the representative said.
It was also added that some foreign ports are putting ships on a two-week hold before being allowed to berth when they learn that it just had a crew-change in the Philippines.
Earlier reports from the Maritime Port Authority (MPA) of Singapore revealed that test results among seafarers who are to join their vessels in Singapore were tampered. While MPA did not mention the home country of the seafarers who tested positive from the disease, a statement from a Philippine manning agency at the time revealed that their application for a crew change in Singapore was recently rejected.
Philippine manning agencies particularly the Joint Manning Group (JMG), on the other hand, insisted that “there still has been no concrete proof” of the alleged tampered Cobid-19 test results but stated that they are already “digging into the matter.”
Dario Alampay, president of JMG said, “This is a very serious matter that we need to look into because eventually, this affects the image of our Filipino seafarers”.
Lengthy, complicated processes
On a separate report by an online maritime news site, Kishore Rajvansh, managing director of Hong Kong-based Fleet Management stated that they could only hope that the “groundwork related to visa issuance for both incoming and outgoing seafarers is managed seamlessly.”
Henrik Jensen, the founder of crewing specialist Danica, said on the same report that despite the creation of Green Lane for seafarers in the Philippines, crew changes remain to be “very difficult” in the country. He explained that crew change permission needs to be applied three days in advance and another application must be applied for the same period should the arrival of the vessel change. A USD8, 000 (Php 376,000) operational expense is also added on the crew change fees because ships need to be fully declared by Customs in and out of Manila.
“The Philippines is better than other places [when it comes to crew change], but to be the crew change capital of the world is maybe a bit optimistic at present,” Jensen said in the report.
Meanwhile, Filipino seafarers who are scheduled for immediate deployment find themselves stuck in the middle of securing pre-employment certifications, training, assessments, and proof of health bills from different agencies that oftentimes take weeks to be released.
This is on top of the travel restrictions caused by the limited availability of flights, passenger voyages, and land transportation to take them to Manila for documentation processes.
“The travel alone takes us almost a month because we had to be on a 14-day quarantine from our province of origin and another 14 days when we arrive in Manila. Government agencies take weeks to issue our certificates, clinics have the same period to release our COVID test results, and we need another two weeks of quarantine before joining the vessel. That’s too much time lost,” a third mate, who refused to be identified, explained.