With the opening of new crew change hubs, the Philippine government is actively taking steps to protect the health of seafarers as well as the economy. By Liz Lagniton, Philippine correspondent, Maritime Fairtrade
When the crew change crisis in the maritime industry stranded thousands of seafarers in various ports from March to June last year, the Philippine government announced its plan to develop several ports that would serve as crew change hubs, a move welcomed by ship owners and managers who had crews locked down in different parts of the world.
However, seven months and six Philippine crew change hubs later, critics—mostly from parties affected by the move—have criticized the plan as “overly optimistic” and an unlikely pipe dream.
But retired Navy admiral Robert Empedrad, now administrator of the Philippine Maritime Industry Authority (MARINA) after 36 years in military service, says the Philippines is serious with its plan and has all the reasons to make it a success.
“There are always birth pangs for each new thing,” Empedrad told Maritime Fairtrade in an interview. “It may even be called chaotic in the beginning, especially during a pandemic, but eventually, we can perfect our crew change in the long run.”
The main reason to make the plan a success, Empedrad said, is the welfare of hundreds of thousands of Filipino seamen all over the world.
Protecting the seafaring industry
Since 1987, the Philippines has played a key role in the international shipping trade with Filipino seafarers manning, in whole or in part, nearly every other ship that carries 80 percent of global trade.
Filipino seafarers dominate the workforce as it is estimated that there is one Filipino for every four to five crew members on board a vessel at any time.
Referring to the lockdown last year, Empedrad said “we had so many Filipino seafarers who were stranded at sea even after their contracts expired, so opening hubs for crew change would allow our seafarers to come home. That is one of the intentions.”
Crew change is critical for seafarers’ health and well-being, however the travel restrictions due to the pandemic made crew change difficult.
More hubs, green lanes to facilitate safe crew change
Over the past seven months, the Philippines opened six ports for crew change purposes. Four in Luzon island—Manila, Capinpin in Bataan, the former US naval base at Subic Bay and Batangas—facing the South China Sea with its high shipping traffic.
Two more were opened in Cebu City in the center of the archipelago and Davao City in Mindanao Island near the Pacific Ocean, respectively.
The Philippine government, in early July 2020, also opened a “green lane” for seafarers in these ports to hasten the rotation of crew.
“The green lane is the first-class gateway for our seafarers. It’s the Philippines’ contribution to ensure uninterrupted international trade during the pandemic, likewise, to facilitate the safe and swift travel of seafarers, including their disembarkation and crew change subject to health protocols,” Empedrad said.
The creation of green lanes was also prompted by repeated warnings from the ship manning sector that thousands of Filipino seafarers may lose their job if foreign ship owners replace them with other nationalities.
To date, there are about 300,000 seafarers in the Philippines, down by more than 100,000 because of job losses at the height of strict Philippine quarantine measures that halted pre-departure training.
The government cannot afford to lose the billions of dollars seafarers send to their families every year. In 2018 alone, the cash remittances from them reached approximately US$6 billion, comprising 19 percent of the total remittances from overseas Filipino workers.
Crew change is also an opportunity for aspiring seafarers to get their first contracts.
Data from the Bureau of Immigration (BI) showed that there was a total of 112,220 seafarers who joined or left their vessels in 2020. Of these figures, 92,931 were Filipinos while 19,289 were foreigners of varying ethnicities.
Troubled by their manning problem, the extra crew change hubs were welcomed by ship owners and there was a marked increase in the number of vessels visiting the Philippines for the first time.
“A lot of vessels come to the Philippines [for] crew change because many countries still do not allowed crew change for the seafarers in order to curb the spread of coronavirus,” Empedrad said.
The concern of new COVID-19 variants
The MARINA administrator disputed ideas that the new variant of the novel coronavirus could plunge the industry back to a crisis like what happened last year.
Empedrad said that, apart from the green lane, to fight the virus, there is also a one-stop health office to check and process the health requirements of the seafarers and the nearby quarantine facilities too.
“The one-stop-shop service created by (the Department of Transportation) is a ‘best practice’ that can be adapted by other countries. All agencies are there in one place for speedy processing. When vessels arrive and seafarers disembark from the ship, there will be people who can administer [virus tests], and quarantine facilities, among others,” Empedrad said.
More economic opportunity for local communities
Aside from the benefits to the seafarers and the industry, the crew change hubs also offer economic opportunities for their host communities.
Beside the crew change fees paid by vessels, there will certainly be a trickle-down effect from the provisioning of ship supplies even if chandlers prefer the prices in Hong Kong or Singapore, he said.
According to Empedrad, the government’s determination to make the Philippines crew change hubs a success will also lead to more visibility, economic activities and revenues for the maritime industry as well.
“The government is pushing for the Philippines to be an international crew change hub, as it is expected to further boost the economy,” Empedrad said, adding that it will also provide a livelihood to more Filipinos.
Although current rules restrict the movement of arriving crewmen, the government is also looking at the hubs’ potential boost to tourism.
For his part, Jay Daniel Santiago, general manager of the Philippine Ports Authority (PPA), hoped that “by becoming a crew change capital of the world, we would not only prime up our seafaring and maritime industry. We also expect to boost our hospitality industry.”
Santiago said the PPA, which operates various ports in the country, continues to carry out projects despite the pandemic and develop the necessary infrastructure to sustain developments in the maritime industry.