Reinstated management courses not a panacea to risk of European ban, says Filipino seafarers

After so much debate, the controversial Management Level Courses (MLC)  for seafarers in the Philippines has been reinstated. Filipino seafarers and advocates of seafarers’ rights are outraged after the Maritime Industry Authority (MARINA) officially announced this decision November 10. The decision was the agency’s response to the results of the 2020 European Maritime Safety Agency (EMSA) audit saying that the training of Filipino seafarers is not up to international standards. 

The EMSA has been calling out the Philippines’ maritime training since 2006. The EMSA 2020 assessment reported that the MARINA and the Commission on Higher Education (CHED) failed to ensure all training and assessment met the standards set by the International Convention on Standards of Training, Certification, and Watchkeeping for Seafarers (STCW Convention).

The  MLC was earlier revoked by the previous MARINA administration on the reason that it was found redundant.

In its official memo, the MARINA reiterated that the reinstated MLC is a  mandatory course, required for seafarers who apply for an assessment of competence and subsequent issuance of a certificate of competence (CoC) for Master, Chief Mate, Chief Engineer and Second Engineer.

Filipino seafarers are now required to complete refresher training courses to revalidate their Certificate of Proficiency (CoP) for the Basic Training (BT) course, the Advanced Fire Fighting (AFF) course, and Proficiency in Survival Craft and Rescue Boat (PSCRB). Letters of attestation regarding shipboard drills are no longer accepted.

In the meantime, the equivalency applications for revalidating CoCs for seafarers having performed functions considered to be equivalent to the seagoing service have also been discontinued.

Oleg Canabano, a seafarer from Olongapo, north of Manila, said he would be in favor of the training sessions if they were for free and if their time was paid during the duration of the training.

“These refresher courses are so expensive and take up so much of our vacation time. Instead of enjoying our short breaks with our families, we have to spend weeks taking courses on subjects we already know about, learning skills we are already capable of,” he lamented.

In a seeming effort to mitigate protests against the MLC, the Marino Partylist (PL) group clarified the MLC is only for deck and engine officers who are applying for an assessment of competence to get a CoC as Master, Chief Mate, Chief Engineer and Second Engineer.

“If a seafarer is not applying for a management position they won’t have to take the MLC,” the group said in response to queries. 

“We have already met with the MARINA authorities. There’s an ongoing house investigation on this matter. What we can do is to improve our country’s maritime curriculum and make the system more organized,” it said. 

The group also said as per MARINA, the MLC is still being reviewed and revisions are being considered to improve training design and delivery as well as cost and duration, without compromising compliance with the requirements of the STCW Convention.

Congressional representative for Marino PL Sandro Gonzalez said seafarers are very much against the MLC because of the high training fees as well as the other expenses seafarers incur when undergoing the training such as board and lodging, as well as transportation expenses.

Expensive training cost

Although the costs of issuance, revalidation, or replacement of some certificates have gone down (CoP is now P130, down from the previous P200, fee for expedited or onboard processing of CoP is reduced to P330 from P600; CoC is now P530 from P1,000, expedited or onboard processing of CoC down to P780 from P1,500), training costs remain exorbitant

Training schools charge an average of P4,999 for the basic training course which takes 10 days and the refresher course costs P2,799 for three days. The course on Proficiency in Survival Proficiency in Survival Craft & Rescue Boat (REF-PSCRB) which takes five days costs P5,359, while the refresher takes two days for P2,399. The course on  Proficiency in Fast Rescue Boats (PFRB) costs P5,199 for four days, while the two-day refresher course costs P2,499. The Advanced in Fire Fighting (AFF) course takes five days and costs P4,199, while the refresher course takes two days, costing P2,399.

To lessen the costs of training, Rep. Gonzalez suggested the creation of alternative training platforms such as the offering of online courses for seafarers.

Seafarers like Sherman Manie, however, were not satisfied. He said the solution to the training problem does not lie with the reimposition of expensive training courses, but with the training schools. 

“It’s the schools that are not up to standard, not the seafarers. The Philippine government and its maritime offices should focus on improving the maritime training institutions (MTI) because it’s their facilities and equipment used in the training sessions that are below standard,” he said.

Other seafarers were also frustrated over the chaos of the MLC reinstatement. Chief engineer Donald Itao for one said he had just finished taking exams and practical assessments, but now he is being told to take the MLC.

“All I’ve been doing is taking these training courses and I can’t focus on securing my employment!”

Many seafarers also pointed out the real problem is the MARINA administration and how it seems to hesitate against a crackdown on low-quality training centers that somehow still became accredited.

“These training centers just keep making money from seafarers even if the training they provide is not sufficient. The MARINA should close down these training schools that do not comply with the STCW and the standards of the EMSA, and be more strict in monitoring all the rest,” said seafarer Jonathan Ramos.

Unnecessary training course

Captain Edgardo V. Flores is also against the revival of the MLC, saying that it was being exploited by officials “who are either ignorant of STCW or are conspiring to defraud seafarers  of their hard-earned money.”

“The MLC has always been a minor deficiency that can be addressed; is it intentional or due to the incompetence of those involved, or both?” he said. Flores is the general manager of the Eastern Mediterranean Manning Agency.

In a previous statements, the MARINA has said that without the implementation of the MLC, 50,000 Filipino seafarer officers may end up losing their employment 

Flores argued this is not true. “The previous MARINA Administrator received the December 20,2021 European Union Report, which cited six serious deficiencies and made no mention of MLC,” he pointed out.

He also said the findings of the Independent Evaluators (IE) have been exploited by “unscrupulous people by interpreting them to their advantage.” 

The IE cited the following in their findings report: “Concerning compliance with Regulation II/2,  the Evaluators concluded that the current process in the Philippines following the completion of requisite seagoing service to obtain management level CoC under Chapter II did not comply with the requirement for formal education and training in STCW Code Section A-II/2.”

Flores admitted that the country’s formal seafarer education system lacks management-level programs, but he said the MARINA authorities should have asked the IEs where the problems lie specifically given that they mentioned education and training which are two distinct issues.

“The question now is how they will assess management aspirants; is there a pass/fail grading system? Otherwise, we must question why the MLC is being used as a tool for the issuance of CoC when we already have the theoretical and practical assessments to determine the competence of seafarers who want to rise to the management level,” he said.

“The MARINA must provide a thorough explanation to the industry because it will have an impact on the business process of the local manning agencies when it comes to seafarer deployment. The entire industry will suffer as a result of this unwarranted requirement known as MLC.”

A seafarer for 12 years, Mark Nagol minced no words and said the Philippines regularly fails the EMSA audit “because the Maritime Industry Authority is incompetent.”

“They are poor implementers of the STCW codes. Filipino seafarers are very competent and we are fast learners, why blame us and keep telling us that we need more training? We have to pay so much for all the training we undergo and we practice what we learn. There’s nothing wrong with our competence, but the same thing can’t be said about the government’s maritime agencies!  All they think about is making more money from seafarers!” he said.

Calls to overhaul the MARINA 

Advocate groups are also demanding reforms.  Engr. Xavier Bayoneta, the chairperson of the Concerned Seafarers of the Philippines, said the Ferdinand Marcos Jr government should review the functions and overhaul the structure and leadership of the MARINA as well as the country’s standards compliance.

“These developments are very alarming to us. In previous years, the EMSA audit was not taken seriously, but now there is a very real threat that the EMSA might close its ships to Filipino seafarers and hire others from  Eastern Europe, Indonesia, India, and Vietnam,” he said. 

“We need sustained solutions, not patchwork responses to these of the maritime industry. Our seafarers need help and all solutions should consider their situation and circumstances to ensure their sustainability.”

Bayoneta shared that in 2018, the deployment rates of Filipino seafarers went down by 25 percent after the EMSA audit. In 2020, these rates further went down by 52 percent. 

“We used to be the number one country when it comes to supplying seafarers to the global maritime industry; now we’re not. Filipino seafarers are not to blame because their employers would be the first to attest to their ability and high level of skill. The problem lies with the Philippine government’s failure to organize the training and education system to fit the international standards set in the Maritime Labor Convention of 2006. All the government wants are the dollar remittances of our seafarers, but without helping them,” he said. 

Bayoneta said beyond the problem of failure to meet international standards, the bigger problem is how the Philippine system of maritime education and training has been so privatized and mainly profit-oriented.

“The maritime schools charge exorbitant fees for the courses and training, much the quality of said training leaves much to be desired as they are far below international maritime standards. Our seafarers deserve better, they deserve more. They pay for all the training courses, they should get quality education that meets EMSA standards,” he said.

In the end, Bayoneta said modernizing the country’s maritime industry should be a comprehensive process that the government should seriously implement, and it starts by providing seafarers with all the support they need. 

“Our seafarers are tired of all the lip service being given to them.  Genuine reforms are needed to address this potential crisis.”

Photo credit: iStock/Igor-Kardasov. Stock photo of a seafarer. 

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