Philippine Maritime Industry: Corruption of the Fixer Culture

The nuisance that hurts Filipino seafarers.

Maritime officials are trying to stamp out corruption within the bureaucracy.  

Before departure, Filipino seafarers need to apply for documents (e.g., seaman’s book, certificates, etc.) necessary for their embarkation onto a ship from the Maritime Industry Authority (MARINA).  They have to secure an appointment slot through the Integrated Seafarers Management Online (MISMO) system. Booking an appointment using this online system is free.

However, some MARINA employees who have internal access to this system use it to their personal advantage to engage in illicit activities.  The corrupt employees blocked all appointment slots so that seafarers can only secure their slots through fixers who offer ‘assistance’ for PHP5,000 (US$98). 

The MARINA has intensified efforts to combat fixing inside the organization. In fact, it has recently developed another online system for other documentary applications such as shipbuilding license for shipyards, request for tonnage certificate for ships, etc.

Government employees who are legally proven to be fixers or colluding with fixers face up to six years of imprisonment and a fine of up to PHP2,000,000 (US$39,000) under the Republic Act No. 11032 or the Ease of Doing Business and Efficient Government Service Delivery Act of 2018.

Despite these punishments being institutionalized, seafarers still complain on social media of the continuing presence of fixers.  These fixers, they claim, are typically stationed outside offices of the MARINA, where appointments for documentary applications are made.

Inside job

Jay*, 31, a seaman who worked on bulk and container ships, shared his experience in an interview with Maritime Fairtrade. “That was in July 2021,” Jay narrated in Tagalog. “The fixer I encountered was not from the MARINA but the site manager of a training center. He said that they have a direct contact from inside the MARINA. I lost the calling card, but after every practicum, they (the training center) would offer to process the Certificate of Proficiency (COP) for faster transaction.”

The fixer, Jay claimed, would ask for the pertinent details needed for the renewal of the seafarers’ certificates. The fixer himself would then process and file these applications. “If you apply for the COP, it will take three weeks to one month before you are given a schedule. But the fixer can have your results released in just 14 days,” Jay added. 

Jay, who is currently on board, recounted that the fixer was charging PHP600 (US$12) per COP. At the time, he was renewing three certificates, which would amount to PHP1,800 (US$36). A single legally-obtained COP costs around PHP230 (US$4.50). Jay chose not to transact with the fixer and got an on-site appointment three weeks after he booked a slot on his own.

Crackdown on corrupt employees

All seafarer-related appointments with the MARINA are now made through the MARINA Integrated Seafarers Management Online (MISMO) System. The website reads, ‘In the light (sic) of safety and precautionary health measures, the MARINA shall conduct a full online evaluation of applications for issuance of STCW Certificates.’ 

MARINA Administrator VADM Robert A Empedrad told the Maritime Fairtrade, “We have already suspended five employees and the cases are now ongoing investigation.” In fact, Empedrad added, two other employees were already charged at the Office of the Ombudsman.

“We can only begin to investigate if someone reports,” Empedrad said when asked if fixing was still rampant in the agency. Empedrad believes that the MARINA’s efforts have been effective due to the lack of new reports on the alleged involvement of its employees in fixing.

Empedrad also shared a critical component of his campaign against fixing in the form of ‘Message Direct the MARINA Administrator’ channel. This system utilizes email and Viber to receive complaints from concerned citizens. 

“Once we receive an email, we will act on it. We are also holding continuous (consultative) meetings with industry stakeholders. So far, majority of the complaints is from the seafaring sector.”

Empedrad also emphasized digitalization as a crucial part of the MARINA’s campaign against fixing. “We will strengthen it (online application systems) with security so it will not be hacked. Payment and certificate will be courier services not only for seafarers, but also (for) shipyards, to speed up our processes to reduce the presence of fixers.”

Problems still persist 

Aside from the seafaring sector, the MARINA also oversees the technical aspects of the shipbuilding sector, the maritime safety sector, and the shipping sector of the Philippines. The government body evaluates and approves vessel plans, issues shipbuilding permits, and issues ship safety statutory certificates, among many other functions.

With all these obligations, the 12 regional offices of the MARINA across the Philippines receive a huge volume of submissions for documentary requirements for different applications from seafarers, shipyards, and ship owners and operators.

Nevertheless, Jay believes that the MARINA’s shift to the online system causes more hassle than convenience to seafarers. “Sometimes seafarers have no choice but to transact with fixers because of the hassle due to the number of requirements that we have to follow,” Jay lamented.

Jay also hopes that the MARINA will review and improve its systems based on the complaints and reports being sent to the agency. He specifically suggested, “There should be additional regional offices or satellite offices, especially in Manila (to accommodate seafarers) because that is where most seafarers process their documents.”

*Name changed to protect the privacy of the person.

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