In a March 7 forum with a group of Filipino shipowners, incumbent Philippine vice president, and presidential candidate in the May 2022 election, Maria Leonor “Leni” Gerona Robredo expressed hope that the Philippines will evolve into a maritime power through effective public-private sector partnerships and sufficient government support.
In the virtual meeting with the Filipino Shipowners’ Association (FSA), Robredo presented her platform to strengthen the country’s maritime sector and assist Filipino seafarers in their aim to become world-class seafarers. Robredo also said that she wants the country to strengthen the shipbuilding industry so it can contribute more to the national economy and Gross Domestic Product (GDP).
The shipping industry accounts for up to 12 percent of the GDP, and as of 2020, the total number of deployed Filipino seafarers are 217,223. Due to the global pandemic restrictions, this figure is lower by 54 percent compared to the 469,996 seafarers who left the country in 2019, as per the data of the Philippines Overseas Employment Administration (POEA) figures published by the Maritime Industry Authority (MARINA).
Robredo said that it important to note that the maritime industry is key to the Philippines’ economic resilience. She said that empowering and strengthening it should be a national imperative.
“I have been very public about my desire to really focus on the maritime industry as the core industry, not just for the sake of the maritime sector, but the recognition that it is vital to improving the national economy as a whole.”
In previous meetings with different chambers of commerce, Robredo has noted that strengthening the maritime industry is very important given that the Philippines has the fifth largest coastline in the world, the second-largest maritime domain, and is the second-largest supplier of maritime workers.
“Combined with our strategic location, we have the potential to become a leading maritime power. This sector has huge employment potential in the country, and this is something that our government will really tap into.”
The only female presidential candidate
Robredo is the only woman among the 10 candidates aspiring for the presidency. She is a human rights lawyer and a widow of former secretary of the Department of Interior and Local Government (DILG), Jesse M. Robredo, who was killed in a plane crash. In 2012, she ran to represent the Third District of Camarines Sur in the House of Representatives and won by a landslide. She served for one term as District Representative.
During the height of the pandemic, the Office of the Vice-President under her leadership was widely noted to be the most active among all government offices in mobilizing efforts to address the welfare needs of affected Filipinos.
Robredo has big plans for the maritime industry. The lone woman running in the presidential race said that her goal is to double the sector’s size to 12 percent of the economy from being only the current six percent.
She said: “How can we reach this goal? We have to modernize and renovate our ports and harbors and make our maritime infrastructure more integrated. Achieving these will produce benefits and results that will go beyond the maritime sector: we will be able to forge a stronger national link through an integrated intermodal national logistics system that will allow trade to grow at the community level. This in turn feeds into our strategy to loop the grassroots into the economic ecosystem.”
Comprehensive reform plan
Robredo has put together a comprehensive plan to improve the maritime industry. She wanted to introduce a maritime course to the senior high school curriculum, in hope of adding to the ranks of officers and ratings, encourage ships to register as Philippine-flagged, and for the Philippines to become a logistics hub to push forward the country’s local and international trade.
The vice-president, however, admitted that there are many inefficiencies in the regulatory framework. Among this is the matter of ship registration. She said that this should be addressed by ensuring consistent and thorough stakeholder engagement, stock-taking process, and a genuine road map wherein progressive policies can be introduced.
“With such a Philippine-flagged fleet, we can maximize our waters: creating employment, lowering the cost of logistics, bringing goods and services faster and farther into our islands. We will become the maritime power we should be.
“I know that it will take time before we can truly make our maritime industry powerful. This is why I believe that it will take comprehensive consultations and coordination with the different sectors and players in the maritime industry so we can make genuinely responsive and effective policies.”
She also backed the establishment of a Philippine ship registry so that ships that bear the Philippine flag can operate internationally. This, she said, will also serve to ensure that Filipino seafarers will have easier access to cargo vessels.
Robredo’s support for the shipping registry is well-founded given that the proposal already has the support from numerous stakeholders of the Philippine shipping industry, as well as the relevant agencies of government. They said that the proposal, if implemented, will hasten the fulfillment of the shipping industry’s demand for policy reforms.
The proposal seeks to align the country’s ship registration with the requirements of international maritime conventions, codes, and practices. This will serve to encourage foreign ship owners who employ Filipino crew to consider the Philippine flag registry for their requirements.
As the Philippines is a major supplier of global maritime seafarers on board various international vessels in different parts of the world, a shipping registry will contribute to the industry’s efficiency and hopefully contribute to the growth of the Philippine merchant fleet.
She said that it was unfortunate that the country does not have a flag carrier. This, she said, forces the country’s seafarers to seek employment on vessels of other jurisdictions. “We lend the best of our men and women to other countries, and we end up on the losing end.”
She noted that new maritime graduates usually have very limited options to train and find employment because most of the Philippine fleet comprises only fishing vessels.
Robredo said that she will certify as urgent the Ship Registry Bill if it is refiled. It was a bill that was filed by former Angkla Partylist representative Atty. Jesulito Manalo. It reached the third reading in the Lower House back in 2014.
Focus on training and education
Robredo said that it is possible to double the industry’s contribution to the economy if seafarers receive better training and education. Improving seafarer training will also improve their employment prospects, and many more will become eligible to work as ship officers. This, she pointed out, will translate to higher salaries and higher remittances for the Philippines.
According to reports, a ship officer can receive as much as US$15,000 per month. An ordinary seafarer, however, receives a minimum of $1,200.
Robredo said that she supports suggestions that public-private partnerships be established in the area of maritime education. This, she said, will help to ensure that maritime courses offered in the Philippines will be on par with international standards.
Quality education and training, she also said, should be more accessible to Filipino seafarers by making training fees reasonable. She added that partnerships between the government and private maritime institutions will also serve to address future needs of the industry, including automation.
Robredo wanted the nationalization of the cadetship program which was started in Bulan, Sorsogon where maritime training is part of the K-12 curriculum. Because of the training program, graduates will already have developed the competence to work as seafarers even if they have not secured a college degree.
“As of now, there are very limited opportunities for Filipinos to take part in the cadetship program because there is also limited support coming from the government,” she said. According to reports, the current government subsidy is only P7,500 (US$144) per course under the Seafarer’s Upgrading Program (SUP).
Robredo as vice-president supported the said cadetship program which began in 2018. Since then, the program has produced 72 graduates a year.
“If a small town like Bulan can produce 72 graduates annually, then we can have more graduates if we introduce the program nationwide. The potential is massive,” she said.
Robredo also said that she is all for strengthening the MARINA. This, she said, can be done by increasing its budget and the competence of staff and leadership. She said that an assessment must be done on what the agency needs so that it can improve performance as a regulator.
Non-compliance to STCW Convention
In the meantime, Robredo is concerned over maritime schools’ not conforming to the requirements of the Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping for Seafarers (STCW) Convention for many years, resulting in deficiencies in seafarers’ training and certification. This non-compliance has led to the European Union’s issuance of a notification in December 2021.
The European Commission, with the assistance of the European Maritime Safety Agency (EMSA), is expected to have a final decision in the months ahead. In the case of a negative outcome, the EU will withdraw recognition of Philippine-issued STCW certificates for masters and officers – a decision that will be followed by its 27 member-states.
Based on the EMSA Outlook for 2020, the Philippines was at the top of the list of non-EU countries with the most officers working in EU-flagged vessels, with a total of 30,615, and now they stand to lose their jobs if recognition is removed.
The EMSA first audited the Philippines in 2006. It was discovered then that there were maritime training institutions that did not comply to the STCW. The same findings were reflected in EMSA assessments in 2010, 2012, 2013, 2014, and 2017. The latest audit in 2022 will be the final one before the EU makes a final decision.
Reintegration program for seafarers
Robredo is also batting for an overseas Filipino worker (OFW) reintegration program. She favored the creation of an interagency task force on the reintegration for different types of OFW returnees (crisis returnees, temporary returnees, retirees), including providing financial assistance. She said that families of OFWs should be part of the program.
She proposed to establish a one-stop-shop migration office in every province. Naga in the southern part of the Philippines already runs one such office, and Robredo herself hails from the said province.
This Naga one-stop-shop is operating through a partnership with the International Maritime Organization. It handles the pre-migration concerns of OFWs as well as their returning concerns. Seafarers in the region are able to access services and process their documents without having to travel to the national offices which are in the National Capital Region (NCR).
In the end, Robredo said, what she wants is for Filipinos to see that going overseas to work is a matter of choice and not necessity.
Robredo is the only presidential candidate that has publicly shared a proposal for the improvement of the maritime industry. She also stated that if she wins the presidency, her administration will invest in related industries such as shipbuilding, aquaculture, and maritime transport.
Seafarers support reforms
Seafarer Lloyd Castañeto Jambaro said that he used to support a different presidential candidate – Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr, the son of ousted Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos – and he actively campaigned for him on social media. However, he changed his mind after hearing Robredo speak in various media.
“I saw that VP Leni is not really a politician. She is primarily a public servant. A servant leader with pure intention. I regret that I did not vote for her back in 2016, but this time I will. I have heard her speak about her platform to help Filipino seafarers, and I am encouraged to vote and campaign for her. There is no shame if we change our mind when we are presented with valid information,” he said.
Edwin Matillano Tacogdoy, ship captain and Master Mariner, also said that he and his crew are supporting Robredo.
“There are many of us seafarers who want reforms not only in the maritime industry and not only for seafarers but also for the country as a whole. We believe that Robredo is sincere and under her leadership, the Philippines will have a chance at true progress. There will be more investors and more work for Filipinos,” he said.
Tacogdoy said that seafarers should not support Marcos Jr “because he’s a tax evader.”
“I am from Antique but despite the difficulties and COVID-19 risks, I have to travel to pay my taxes in Manila and Cavite. We, ordinary citizens, are diligently paying our taxes, yet how could we even think of making someone who doesn’t pay his taxes the leader of our country?
“I still believe that good people outnumber morally corrupt ones. Let us elect leaders that represent our values. Why choose bullies and thieves if we ourselves are not bullies and thieves?”
It is public knowledge and widely reported in the media that Marcos Jr and his family owe billions in unpaid taxes. The Bureau of Internal Revenue only last week said that it has already sent a written demand to the Marcos family to pay tax liabilities in late 2021. The amount is currently pegged at a little over P200 billion (US$3.8 billion).
A chief officer of a Japanese vessel, Alden Rodenas, said that he sees Robredo as the first candidate of the Philippine opposition to have a genuine platform for Filipinos.
“She has a proven track record as a pro-bono lawyer, social welfare worker, congresswoman, and vice-president. We need someone to lead our collective efforts to map out a new political landscape. We cannot recover from the pandemic and our many economic problems if we do not have someone capable at the helm,” he said.
Rolly Cabanban Abaigar from the Filipino Shipowners Association said that he was very impressed how Robredo “was deeply aware of the problems affecting the 700,000 strong Filipino seafaring community on the domestic and international fleets.”
“It was impressive,” he said “For the sake of the Philippine maritime industry, I am supporting Robredo,” he said simply.
Photo credit: Seafarers for Leni facebook.