Fix Marina first
President Marcos Jr. finally took notice of the big problem that has long hounded the country’s maritime sector, specifically the task of overseeing maritime training and accreditation, after the country repeatedly failed to pass the European Maritime Safety Agency (Emsa)’s evaluation in the past 16 years. Since 2006, the Philippines has faced the possibility of a ban by the European Union on the hiring of Filipino seafarers after Emsa raised concerns about the country’s noncompliance with certain provisions of the 1978 International Convention on Standards of Training, Certification, and Watchkeeping (STCW) for seafarers.
According to Secretary Susan Ople of the Department of Migrant Workers (DMW), the President wanted a collective effort to finally correct the issues raised by the EU, which if unaddressed could put at risk the jobs of some 50,000 Filipino seafarers working in European-flagged vessels. The Filipino maritime workers send about P376 billion in remittances annually, and the country is the top source of certified seafarers in the world. Thus, Ople said Mr. Marcos issued a directive tasking several agencies to come up with an “implementation plan” to bring the country’s maritime training industry up to international standards and protect the jobs of those already working there and future deployments. Aside from the DMW, the President has ordered the departments of transportation (DOTr), foreign affairs (DFA), and labor (DOLE), as well as the Commission on Higher Education (CHEd) to see to it the country’s maritime training and accreditation system will pass the EU review.
Playing a key role in all this will be the Maritime Industry Authority (Marina), but its own internal issues are to blame for the country’s failure to pass several Emsa audits. Created in June 1974, Marina is the agency under the Office of the President in charge of the country’s shipping and seafaring industry. It was placed under the DOTr in July 1979. When Marina was created, it was the sole agency tasked to implement the STCW in the country. In 2000, however, the agency was stripped of these powers, which were in turn distributed to 11 different agencies, causing the fragmentation of responsibilities for the efficient implementation of the STCW. In 2012, the Aquino administration addressed the fragmentation of rules that led the EU to threaten to ban Filipino workers aboard their ships. Executive Order No. 75 issued that year designated Marina again as the sole agency to implement the STCW. All functions related to training and certification of seafarers, as well as the accreditation of maritime training centers, were transferred back to Marina. But the 2012 Emsa audit report still gave a “below par assessment” that cast doubt on the proficiency and competence of Filipino seafarers. CHEd back then already pointed out that 123 or 75 percent of the 157 maritime training programs in the country had failed to meet Emsa quality standards since 2009.
One aspect that may have been given less importance in Marina’s failure to upgrade maritime standards through the years is the fact that Marina has seen frequent changes in leadership, not to mention the controversies involving its past administrators. In January 2018, for instance, former president Rodrigo Duterte fired “jet-setting” Marina administrator Marcial Amaro III for making 24 foreign trips in just 18 months in office. As Samuel Batalla, officer in charge of Marina’s STCW Office, cited during the recent hearing conducted by the House committee on overseas workers affairs, the inconsistency in addressing the Emsa findings could be partly due to the quick succession in Marina’s leadership—under the Duterte administration alone, there were at least five officials who called the shots at Marina. Batalla has proposed that the Marina administrator be a career official rather than appointed by the President to “ensure consistency and sustained policy implementation until the desired outcomes are met.”
Batalla also called the attention of lawmakers to the lack of permanent personnel of Marina and the CHEd to inspect and monitor maritime higher education institutions. “At the moment, there are 83 maritime schools, 84 training centers, and 32 assessment centers. At Marina, there are only 17 permanent personnel who can serve as lead evaluators to inspect and monitor these maritime institutions,” Batalla had lamented.
Marina expects the EU to deliberate on the Philippines’ final report of compliance submitted in March this year in the “spring of 2023 or about March to May 2023.” That is just a few months away from today. The agencies tasked by the President need to work double time to come up with a comprehensive plan to make the Philippines finally comply with the requirements of the STCW convention. But it should not forget the internal problems hounding Marina itself, notably the frequent change in administrator and acute lack of qualified staff. These need to be addressed first.
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