Can MLC save Filipino seafarers from blacklist?

A debate is currently raging in the Philippine seafaring industry concerning the possible return of a seafarers’ education course. On the government side, it wants to bring back an expensive, mandatory training course that was removed only last year; on the side of seafarers, they want the training course to remain scrapped and instead call for reforms in maritime schools.

MLC: Necessary or redundant?

The MLC, or Management Level Course for seafarers in the Philippines, is the education program put together by the Maritime Industry Authority (MARINA) to meet the mandatory requirement of the International Convention on Standards of Training, Certification, and Watchkeeping or STCW Convention on approved education and training.  

In February, the European Union’s European Commission Directorate General for Mobility and Transport (DG MOVE) met with the Philippine maritime officials on the EU’s December 20, 2021 notification seeking the Philippines’ compliance with the STCW Convention. 

The Philippines has been called out regarding the failure to comply with provisions of the convention, particularly concerning education, training, and certification of Filipino seafarers in the wake of an inspection conducted by the EC and the European Maritime Safety Agency (EMSA) in 2020.

If another negative assessment is released, the EC will withdraw the recognition of Philippine-issued STCW certificates for masters and officers. Specifically, on education requirements, the SCTW stipulates its requirement training in Section A-II/2 for Masters and Chief Mates, as well as Section A-III/2 for Chief Engineers and Second Engineers.

In the Philippines, the Bachelor of Science in Marine Transportation and the Bachelor of Science in Marine Engineering (BSMarE) are the approved education and training courses for the officer-in-charge of a navigational watch (OIC-NW) and the officer-in-charge of an engineering watch OIC-EW. 

Despite this, MARINA is currently insisting that taking the MLC apart from securing the aforementioned degrees is needed to meet the requirement of the STCW Convention. It is not taught in maritime schools but is a separate course that seafarers take after securing the BSMT or BSMarE and the required sea service as OIC.

According to MARINA, those who want to become Masters and Chief Mates on ships weighing 500 GT and more should take the MLC. It also used to be a requirement for seafarers who want to become Chief Engineers and Second Engineers on ships “powered by main propulsion machinery of 750 kW propulsion power” or more.

Many seafarers, however, are arguing that the MLC is not necessary because seafarers are already taking existing courses to secure the necessary education and training for employment.

MARINA reverses decision and reinstates MLC

While the MLC was discontinued on May 7, 2021, the newly appointed MARINA Administrator Atty. Hernani Fabia said he wants it reinstated. This is reportedly because of findings of an independent evaluator that there is no evidence of formal education and training for management-level officers in the country. 

Fabia made this announcement during a Joint Maritime Committee (JMC) meeting of the German Dutch-Nordic-Norwegian Chambers of Commerce in the Philippines August 25.

Earlier this year in March, two independent evaluators, Prof. Milhar Fuazudeen and Dr. Malek Pourzanjani arrived in the country to spearhead the evaluation process of the Philippine maritime education system. The independent evaluation is a mandatory step prior to the implementation of the IMO Member State Audit Scheme (IMSAS). The Philippines is scheduled for a mandatory audit in October 2023.

During his meeting with MARINA officials, Lead Evaluator Fuazudeen said the evaluation was implemented not as a means of fault-finding but to evaluate the quality standard of the Philippines and determine if it has improved within the standards of the STCW Convention.

He also explained the evaluation is evidence-based, and given this, there is a need to focus on aspects of the education system that are weak. “We evaluate to enhance the system. We want to make sure that it stays compliant, and that the compliance is sustained.”

The evaluators, later on, issued their findings, and included in them are 13 observations and 11 non-conformities of MARINA and four observations on the Commission on Higher Education (CHED) which help implement the maritime education system. Observations were also made and non-conformities were discovered in the seven inspected maritime education and training institutions (METIs). 

MARINA is now saying the evaluators are recommending the return of the MLC. This news was met with protests as seafarers’ groups and advocacy groups supporting seafarers’ rights said the move will not address the SCTW requirement issue, but only put an expensive burden on seafarers.

Clashing opinions of past and present MARINA execs

Fabia’s predecessor as MARINA executive Vice Admiral Robert Empedrad has already come out against the revival of the MLC, saying it is already in the country’s maritime education curriculum. 

He said that during his term, MARINA and the Commission on Higher Education (CHED)  issued the Joint CHED-MARINA Advisory 01 series of 2020 and Joint CHED-MARINA Memorandum Circular 01 series of 2022 which reiterated the continued implementation of the existing curriculum under CMO 67 series of 2017 and CMO 14 series of 2018.

Here, the MLC is not included in the mandatory training standard for Filipino seafarers. It is also not a requirement for the issuance of a Certificate of Competency (COC) as per the STCW Code.

“The curriculum contains management-level modules. If they still are lacking in new industry requirements for marine officers, then that is the only time they should get the subjects or modules from the training centers,” he said. 

When he was still at the helm, Empedrad released an advisory rescinding the MARINA Circular supporting the MLC 2014-01 in May 2021. In the advisory, it was stated the MLC, among other courses, is no longer mandatory for seafarers. It will only be required for seafarers who have failed their examination or assessment three times.

Empedrad argued the country will not be removed from the IMO Whitelist simply because of the alleged non-compliance with the findings of the independent evaluators.  

“The evaluators are being paid for their services to only look into our process, but they are not authorized to interfere with our policies. They cannot dictate the MLC be implemented in maritime higher education institutions or in the training centers,” he said.

According to reports from Marino World, when he was still in office, Empedrad was already contemplating canceling the service of the independent evaluators because of conflict of interest. 

He questioned the integrity of one of the evaluators who allegedly talked to the training centers during the conduct of the independent evaluation. The said evaluator reportedly went on to question the MLC implementation instead of making recommendations on how MARINA could improve the system of education for seafarers.

Questionable motives?

As for seafarers’ groups, the United Filipino Seafarers is calling attention to the motives of MARINA and of Fabia himself for wanting to revive the MLC. The group’s president Nelson Ramirez alleged Fabia will personally benefit from the move because he owns a training center and a maritime school.

Ramirez said Fabia owns the Philippine Nautical and Technological College (PNTC). Fabia, however, has said he already divested his shares and the PNTC’s largest shareholder is now a company called KFJ Ventures. Ramirez said he later discovered Fabia also owns KFJ Ventures.

“Is not this a clear deception?” he asked.  The PNTC was founded on April 18, 1994, by Hernani Fabia. It was originally named Philippine Nautical Training Institute.

Apart from reinstating the MLC, Fabia has declared fines of between P50,000 and P1 million (US$847 and US$16,900) will be charged against seafarers and manning agencies caught faking proof of proficiency certificates.  

Seafarers’ views differ 

Various seafarers have also weighed in on the issue. Some, like Capt. Gregory Nick Sevilla, MSM, has taken the middle ground. He said if the MLC in its current form does not meet the STCW’s requirements, then there is a need for a gap training/assessment for those who completed BS degrees under such a curriculum. If the MLC does meet the requirement, then there is no need for the MLC.

He gave an example of the STCW requirement of competence for OICS.

“We should understand experience alone will not meet the STCW requirement. Of course, as with other professions, such as a doctor, you need enough theoretical knowledge and practical knowledge plus actual trainee experience before you become M.D. or specialist for other medical practices,’ he said.  

Still, he said, if the STCW requires both training and sea-service experience for a particular competence, then the STCW should be very specific about it. 

Other seafarers are more vehement in their protest. 

Seafarer Harold Gundran said there is no need for the MLC because the subjects and topics there are already in the courses they took in seafaring school. 

“MARINA and the CHED have joined forces before but the new admin seems to have forgotten the details of why they scrapped the MLC. During my midshipman days when I was still studying, we had ARPA/ECDIS, simulators, and ship handling subjects. We also had trim stability and navigation subjects, even maritime law,” he pointed out.

Gundran said instead of passing the burden to seafarers and forcing them to take the MLC, MARINA should focus on weeding out those substandard schools that do not meet the curriculum requirements for the standards of the SCTW. 

“I think the schools that are not compliant with the approved curriculum should be closed. That is what EMSA is pointing out – it is calling out the substandard maritime schools. The requirements in the STCW’s Section A-II/2 and Section A-III/2 are all about competence – something that an OIC must have and prove through both examinations and practical assessments. There is no need for the MLC,” he said.

Another seafarer, Bryan Becks, said the findings of the evaluators were being taken advantage of by training center shareholders. 

“It’s crystal clear, without training and upgrading, the number of enrollees declines at the registrars. Pity the seafarers who have no time to register complaints. They’re denied the right to protest against the imposition of the MLC and instead are given no choice but to attend the boring classroom and just accept that their vacation time has been wasted,” he said.

Becks said unless a good administrator take over MARINA, Filipino seafarers will remain “the milking cows” of the training providers.  

Waste of money and vacation time

“The revival of MLC must have a solid basis, in other words MLC must be the only way to address the issue of producing competent Filipino officers for us to be able to comply with the EMSA issues and not simply to serve the interests of maritime training institutions more than the interests of Filipino seafarers,” the seafarer/vlogger who goes by the handle Kuya SEAd argued. 

Kuya SEAd said MARINA should consider the opposition of seafarers to the revival.

Engr. Artemio V. Serafico, president & general manager, TSM Maritime Services (Phils.), said MARINA should first explain at length how Philippine maritime schools are lacking in the training and education they provide instead of reinstating the MLC.

“Is it also the independent evaluator who said the only remedy in this so-called killer issue is the MLC refresher course? Have they exhausted all reasons and analysis to prove that the use of the attestation is enough for the purpose?” he said. 

Serafica said MARINA should first shed light on the issues concerning the STCW education requirements.

When the mandatory training namely the MLC was removed, seafarers rejoiced. The MLC took two to three months to complete, time, the seafarers said, should have been spent earning money.   It cost P30,000 to 40,000 (US$508 to US$847), but this already exorbitant amount still does not include other expenses seafarers incur as they take the MLC, such as rent of boarding houses for seafarers who live in the provinces, food, and transportation costs.

One seafarer who goes by the name merchantsealife.com computed his expenses when he took the MLC back in 2017 and said he spent a total of P 133, 432.50 (US$2,262).  For just the tests, he paid P36,000 (MLC Deck); P17,000  tuition for the review center (discounted);  P 1000 for the MARINA Exams Fee;  P250 for the MARINA Certificate of Passing Fee; and P19,500 for the practical assessment test.

The rest of his expenses went to transportation (roundtrip airfare as he was from Cebu and the tests were in Manila, and daily transport costs while in Manila); board and lodging; groceries, and supplies for 14 weeks.  

“These were not estimates, they were actual expenses I made during the entire process of complying with exam requirements up to the date of the examination. All figures were in the exact amount and taken from an app I used to track all my expenses connected to the tests for 14 weeks. This figure does not include expenses I incurred not connected to the tests,” he said.

MLC not proof of competence 

Seafarer vlogger Kuya SEAd said that proof of competence does not come with a seafarer having taken the MLC. 

“The attestation from the shipowners and the Master of the ship is a clear example of documentary evidence that is acceptable by all the member states of the STCW Convention. Why is the Philippines the only member that is changing its rules? Why does the MARINA issue its COP or COC if seafarers still have to further prove their educational proficiency even after they have secured experience working on ships?” he said. “It’s like the MARINA doubts its own certifications.”

Kuya SEAd pointed out the SCTW’s Section A-l/11 stated those who have continuously worked onboard for 12 months within five years only need revalidation. 

He said: “Refresher courses are only needed if a seafarer has failed to work onboard for five years and if they cannot show documentary evidence of their performance. It is insulting to all hardworking seafarers that we are always being forced to prove our competence by taking all these courses that cost time and money. 

“Improve the courses we take as students, and focus on the maritime schools by ensuring they incorporate the requirements of the SCTW in the education curriculum. Do all this instead of punishing professional seafarers.” 

Other factors that impact maritime education

A 2020 research (Improving governance of maritime higher education institutions to ensure the success of Filipino cadets by Cleto Del Rosario, Dimitrios Dalaklis, Momoko Kitada, Johan Bolmsten) has posited different factors have to be considered when it comes to improving the quality of education that seafarers received as students. 

Many of these factors are economic such as costs of education, capacity of families to support their children taking maritime courses, and employment levels in the regions where maritime students lived.

According to the research, there were 70 recognized Maritime Higher Education Institutions (MHEIs) in the country while there were 66 private institutions. In private MHEIs, students have to pay for tuition and other fees, while students in public MHEIs get free schooling as these are government-run schools. 

From 2006 to 2010, maritime schools had an average annual enrollment of 71,200 students, but only 16 percent or 11,386 students graduated after four years of study/work. Enrollees grew to 124,438 enrollees in the three years of the BSMT and BSMarE programs from 2015 to 2016, but only 25,855 maritime midshipmen (BSMT 14,542; BSMarE 11,393) completed their academic requirements and at the time of the research were waiting for shipboard training berths. 

The study also stated only 5,101 completed their respective program with the required 12 months of shipboard training or only about 19.73 percent of those who completed their academic requirements.

This, the authors said, meant an estimated 20,754 cadets failed to graduate because of a lack of shipboard training berths and were added to the majority of graduates who were waiting for their chance to fulfill the requirement of shipboard training.

“In maritime higher education, despite all the efforts of the government, the success in terms of completion of programs and shipboard employment remains low. For the period (SY) 2017-2018, only 13,835 graduated the four-year baccalaureate program or 35% of the 39,012 students who completed the third-year level in the previous year,” they added. 

As for the success rates of Philippine MHEI cadets, it is associated with a regional gap across the different regions of the Philippines. Data reveals the success rate of MHEIs is only 17% throughout the Philippines. This means that only 17% of marine cadets have an embarkation opportunity and ultimately work onboard the ship as a seafarer. Figures per region reveal that the success does not depend with the number of enrolments, but on other factors.  

Given these results, the question arose of whether the MLC is needed or if the system of education in maritime schools and their curriculum is enough. Deeper research should be done into the quality of education the students received, what factors contributed to their success and failure, and their ability to reach international skills and training standards.  

Improve quality of maritime education without burdening seafarers

As industry leaders continued their debate about the MLC, seafarers pointed out any decisions taken by MARINA and other stakeholders should take into account the welfare of seafarers.

The group calling themselves “The Millennial Seafarers” have taken a stand against the return of the MLC as it currently is, but they are open to amendments to the course to make it more robust and have “pedagogical integrity.”

The group said: “Yes, the MLC is an added burden to seafarers not just on finances but on time resources as well. An MLC course will already rake up almost half of the seafarers’ earnings from his/her previous vessel. 

“On top of that, it will also consume all the vacation days of the seafarer in between contracts. The money and time here will be less of an issue if some of the training centers are delivering the said course properly with the seafarers actually learning new skills and knowledge. 

“Different issues have already been raised regarding this matter, such as the “no appearance policy” of some training centers in exchange for additional fees, and the boring and monotonous delivery of training courses that mostly comprise lectures with no regard to the learning of the trainees.” 

The group said all the stakeholders involved should work together to find the best solutions to ensure that the Philippines will become compliant with international standards without exploiting the seafarers. 

The group added: “We need to come up with a revised MLC which is not only designed to milk our seafarers. We need to produce a rebranded MLC that truly helps our seafarers acquire the necessary skills and knowledge, and not just lock them in a room for eight hours a day for three months. 

“The money here is not the issue for seafarers as they are earning Benjamins onboard, nor the time, as they want to learn and be competent in their profession. The underlying issue here is the financial and time resources consumed in exchange for nothing.” 

Photo credit: iStock/ twilightproductions

Ina Alleco R. Silverio

Ina Alleco R. Silverio

Ina Silverio, our Philippine correspondent, is an award-winning investigative reporter. She is also the author of two books.

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