Filipino seafarers and their families are rejoicing over the announcement that Canada has signed a reciprocal arrangement with the Philippines wherein Filipino seafarers who hold a valid Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping for Seafarers (STCW) certificate of competency can now apply for a Canadian endorsement. The deal recognizes Philippine-issued STCW certificates for Filipino seafarers, enabling them to crew Canadian ships for the first time.
On March 29, 2023, Canada entered into a reciprocal arrangement with the Philippines for the recognition of certificates of competency and issuance of endorsements according to regulation I/10 of the STCW Convention. This is similar to reciprocal arrangements Canada has already signed with Australia, France, Norway, Ukraine, Georgia, and the United Kingdom.
Transport Canada, the department within the government responsible for developing regulations, policies and services, permits foreign seafarers with a valid STCW certificate sponsored by a Canadian authorized representative, to apply for a Canadian endorsement attesting to the recognition by Canada of their certificates to serve on board a Canadian-flagged vessel.
In the meantime, Canadian seafarers can also seek a Filipino endorsement of a valid Canadian STCW certificate by writing to the Philippine Maritime Industry Authority.
“This is a very good opportunity for us seafarers,” said Michael Benavidez, 32. Benavidez said the more countries that open themselves to Filipino seafarers, the better.
“We are hard workers – we are among the best in the world. We also work well with seafarers and bosses from other nationalities. It’s good that Canadian ships are welcoming us,” he said.
According to Transport Canada’s Marine Safety Directorate, the arrangement is prompted by industry demands. It reportedly aims to address what it said was a shortage of officers and seamen in Canada’s maritime industry.
In a bulletin, the department said the industry and government departments have sounded the call for more qualified seafarers. It said the agreement will benefit ship owners and supply chains even as it ensures a competent workforce.
With the implementation of the agreement, Filipino seafarers can begin applying for work with Canadian flagships within the year. It has also been reported that the Canadian Coast Guard is also considering hiring Filipinos as potential personnel sources.
“The country is confident in the competency levels of Filipino seafarers and is now ready to receive applicants from the Philippines,” Transport Canada said.
In a statement to the media, Transport Canada spokesperson Hicham Ayoun said Canada needs more qualified seafarers to assume various roles aboard ships and ashore to support marine operations.
Bruce Burrows, CEO and president of the Chamber of Marine Commerce (CMC), welcomed the development, saying it will be good for ship owners, especially those in the North American supply chain. The employment of Filipino seafarers, he said, “will make the marine-centric part of the supply chain even more reliable.”
The CMC mainly represents shipping interests in the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Seaway in Canada. Burrows said they had long been asking Transport Canada to facilitate the immigration of more foreign workers to man its vessels. “We need more officers and regular sailors, as we face a severe personnel deficit in Canada’s maritime industry,” he said.
He also said because they operate on a global scale, CMC is “well-acquainted with numerous Filipino mariners. Their demonstrated competence is widely acknowledged, and we are enthusiastic about welcoming new Filipino applicants to our ranks.”
The shortage of seafarers in the Canadian maritime industry has been rising in the last decade. Based on data from Transport Canada, 43 percent of the maritime workforce will retire over the next 10 years, including 52 percent of engineering officers and 47 percent of deck officers. Given this, the agency foresees a need to hire roughly 19,000 new workers over the next 10 years, which represents 68 percent of the workforce.
There are also vacancy rates for deck officers of around seven percent, followed by six percent for engineering officers. This, the agency said, is higher than the national average of four percent. The deck officer and engineering officer positions are critical to operating a vessel.
As early as 2018, it was already announced that Canada expected to lose 20 percent of its aging seafarers to retirement within the next five years.
Fear of taking jobs away from Canadian seafarers
While the agreement is welcomed by various sectors, others are still in doubt, saying it is a significant shift in international labor arrangements, which might cause local Canadian wages to fall.
The Canadian Merchant Mariners have been quoted in a Facebook post saying they are worried the agreement will serve to depress Canadian wages and make the industry less attractive for Canadian youth.
The average seaman salary in Canada is US$54,902 per year or $28.16 per hour.
Another group, the Fish, Food and Allied Workers Union (FFAW-Unifor), said the deal is alarming for Canadian seafarers as they worry the agreement “signals the rapid erosion of quality, at-sea jobs in favor of low-wage labor.”
The union said they are concerned the Canadian government is attempting to lower marine safety standards or implement substandard marine safety regimes.
In a statement, the group said while they are mainly a fish harvester and plant worker union, they have 200 members who work in offshore jobs and are most affected by Transport Canada’s decision to allow Filipino seafarers to work on Canadian vessels.
“Atlantic Canada has alarmingly high unemployment rates, and yet our federal government is looking at ways to make it harder for these Canadians to compete for jobs. And not just any job; a job that is on their doorstep and provides a meaningful livelihood in a skilled industry,” FFAW-Unifor president, Greg Pretty, said.
Pretty said the government should declare the safeguards it has put in place to guarantee that companies will not be replacing entire offshore fleets with low-wage workers at the expense of Canadian jobs and safety standards.
“Companies will always be after increasing the bottom dollar, even if it means sacrificing the livelihoods of thousands of Canadians along the way. It’s our government’s role to ensure Canadians are put first, and that jobs and standards of safety are protected.”
John Hynes, second engineer at Norbulk Shipping NB and former chief engineer at Ocean Group also questioned Canadian Transport’s decision.
“What’s going to happen to students who are enrolled in courses for deck officer, marine engineer, deck or engine room rating when they graduate? They will be looking for employment but it will be hard because the positions will be filled by the seafarers from the Philippines,” he wrote in a Facebook post.
“For someone to come from another country, just be able to show proof of certification, get it transferred to a Canadian certificate and then be able to work on any Canadian flagged vessel and not even have to have Canadian citizenship. This will surely be the end of the Canadian seafarers. Companies will definitely opt for the cheapest crewing option.”
Hynes also pointed out Canadian seafarers have to go through extensive and expensive training and education to meet strict Transport Canada guidelines which are among the strictest in the industry.
“Yes, foreign seafarers do training, but it is not to the same standard as Canada,” he wrote.
Continuing challenges to meet STCW standard
Despite the apprehension of Canadian workers, this Canada’s decision is among the first positive reports to come out since December 2021 when the European Union (EU) announced it was considering to terminate recognition of the Philippines’ education, training, and certification system for seafarers. However, after Philippine rectified the compliance issues, on March 31, 2023, the European Commission decided to continue recognizing Philippine certificates.
In the wake of the Canadian government’s announcement, European Commissioner for Transport Adina Valean said: “We appreciate the constructive cooperation with the Philippine authorities and welcome their efforts to improve the system for training and certifying seafarers.”
According to current reports, there are at least 50,000 Filipino masters and seafarers employed with EU-flagged ships.
Valean said the EU will provide technical support to the Philippines to further improve the implementation and oversight of minimum education, training, and certification requirements, as well as the living and working conditions of seafarers.
The ECSA (European Community Shipowners’ Associations) and ICS (International Chamber of Shipping) also applauded the decision to continue to recognize the certificates of Filipino seafarers. The two institutions, working with other industry partners and the Philippine government, are now coordinating under the newly established International Advisory Committee on Global Maritime Affairs (IACGMA) established in January.
ECSA Secretary General Sotiris Raptis congratulated the Philippines for its commitment and “in-depth response to the shortcomings identified by the Commission.”
“This is a positive development as Filipino seafarers play a central role in European shipping and in keeping European trade moving. By engaging with the authorities of the Philippines together with our industry partners, ECSA strives to facilitate a productive dialogue between the country and the EU on matters of key importance such as seafarers’ qualifications, training, and certification,” she said.
ICS Secretary General Platten echoed Raptis and said Filipino seafarers are a vital and valued part of the seafarer workforce.
“This decision made by the European Commission is a testament to the Philippines’ hard work to make sure seafarer training complies with regulations. We are delighted to be convening partners to ensure these standards are maintained globally,” he said.
Photo credit: iStock/ Igor-Kardasov