PH seafarers in unchartered waters

PH seafarers in unchartered waters

Filipino seafarers at work in the West African country of Cameroon. VON JAY BALEÑA

MANILA – Philippine President Rodrigo Roa Duterte, known for his colorful speeches, was quoted saying his government’s goal is to make overseas employment an option.

“Our objective is to make working abroad an option and not a need,” he said in his speech on Sept. 16, a couple of months after assuming the Philippine presidency in 2016.

However, an average of 5,674 Filipino workers have continued to leave the country daily from Jan. 1 to July 31 this year. No less than the government-run Philippine Overseas Employment Administration said 1,222,003 workers were deployed worldwide during the first seven months of 2017, which represents 58% of the total number of deployed workers in 2016.

It is interesting to know that from 23,543 seafarers deployed in 1975, POEA reported some 406,531 sea-based workers in 2015. This only proves the existence of a high demand abroad for Filipino seafarers.

Military Ordinary Bishop Ramon Cabrera Arguelles described the Filipino seafarers as “modern-day Phoenicians” who sail the seas for a decent living.

True enough, future seafarers troop to 11 state-funded and 73 private colleges and universities across the country to acquire the required degrees in marine transportation or maritime engineering.

Despite the economic slowdown and several financial crises, seafarers have continued to provide a significant portion of the US$ 29.7 billion in personal remittances, in 2016.

As far as former Employers Confederation of the Philippines (ECOP) president Edgardo n. Lacson is concerned, though Filipino seafarers comprise at least 25% of the world’s mariners with high-paying positions such as masters, chief engineers, and chief mates, foreign shipowners began hiring their own nationals while Filipino crewmen were hired either as cabin attendants for cruise ships or lower rank deck and engine crew with much lower salaries.

He, too, noticed the reduced remittances sent by Filipino seafarers.

“Even as POEA mandates remittance of at least 80% of their monthly salary, there is a shift in crewing position(s) of Filipino seafarers, he said in an email interview.

In spite of shorter contracts, from five to nine months, seafarers are expected to hone their skills.

Filipino seamen need to deal with strong headwinds because as Lacson observed, for quite some time now, many other Third World countries have begun supplying various foreign ships with crewmen willing to accept lower salaries.

Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas reported that personal remittances sent in 2012 amounted to US$ 23.8 billion.

The report said growth in remittances was driven by higher personal transfers brought about by land-based Filipino workers with work contacts of one year or more (13.3 percent) and sea-based workers and land-based workers with short-term contracts (by 11.6 percent).

Rough seas ahead

As far as Marie Jimenez San Pedro is concerned, Filipino seafarers are now considered migrant workers but should be recognized as “maritime professionals.”

In a round table discussion, San Pedro, president of Mariners Polytechnic Training Center, said the Philippines has ceased to be the world’s no. 1 in ratings and officers.

“The Philippines is getting more popular for its ratings while officers are on the downtrend,” she explained. She added there should be clearer directions from government in order for higher education institutions to produce excellent seafarers.

“Vietnam, Indonesia, and Myanmar are countries in a hurry to get the jobs from us,” explained San Pedro, calling on government institutions like the Commission on Higher Education and Maritime Industry Authority to encourage schools to produce officers and not ratings or rank-and-file workers.

There used to be 90 maritime schools, which fell to 46 but rose to 70 at some point. Currently, 40 higher educational institutes offer maritime courses.

Her fellow academician, Arlene Abuid-Paderanga, president of Asian Institute of Maritime Studies said the impact of the recently-implemented K-12 program will be felt from two to five years, taking note of “competing professions” such as information technology, medical sciences, and the travel and tourism-related courses.

“Gone are the days when non-performers were convinced by parents to study and work as seamen,” Paderanga said. She added they are not after numbers but would prefer men and women who have set their sights on sailing into open sea.

According to her, those who have been “forced” into the profession will work from five to ten years and when they have saved enough, they will seek other more rewarding and less dangerous work.

San Pedro said their students who come from the middle class and below are proof that getting into the maritime profession is a difficult decision to make. Despite the unstable economic conditions most students are in, they have the drive and desire to work as seafarers and provide a better future for their loved ones.

Both academicians admitted they have not done tracer studies to look into the conditions of their graduates who are now gainfully employed.

“The profiling and tracer studies could very well help the government in crafting policies to further improve the existing standards,” noted San Pedro.

Meanwhile, chief engineer Alfredo Haboc said they have never been remiss in calling on low-ranking seafarers to train and prepare for leveling up as officers. He said what is important, aside from dedication to work, is having enough Emotional Quotient to cope with the challenges of a life at sea.

Aside from dealing with discrimination, seafarers need to manage the stress that comes with the job.

Patrick Alan Peralta, a graduating student from the privately-owned Maritime Academy of Asia and the Pacific, said more millennials are getting lured into the maritime profession.

“The selfie generation has recognized the thrills of going abroad and earning a lot,” he said. He explained this also means “coming out of our comfort zone” because “one must be away from home but getting closer to one’s dreams.”

Peralta was one of the Ten Outstanding Maritime Students of the Philippines honored on Sept. 24 during the country’s celebration of National Seafarers’ Week.

Both Paderanga and San Pedro said the Philippines has a rich history of seafaring, evidenced by the locally-made boats known as balanghay which were known to have successfully reached the coasts of Madagascar. San Pedro said the Philippines being an archipelagic country should remind the government of the need to improve its domestic maritime industry.

“We need connectivity,” she said which will become a reality once the government improves its ports, vessels, and education and training. Improved ports, shipbuilding and ship repair facilities would produce maritime-related jobs.”

Projections and assignments

Atty. Dennis Gorecho, president of the Maritime Law Association, said his office has attended to welfare cases filed in behalf of seafarers who either died or were afflicted with debilitating diseases. In many cases and despite the risks, maritime students want to help their respective families and follow in the footsteps of their respective fathers or elder brothers who worked as seafarers.

“Never be at ease with ratings. Strive to become officers,” Gorecho said. He added he and his associates handled interesting cases, including that of a 22 to 23-year old seafarer who died of cancer and of a young seaman who was shot dead by pirates.

Gorecho said while they provide legal advice and services, a faith-based group known as Apostleship of the Sea attends to the spiritual needs of seafarers and their families in Manila and the provinces.

He observed seafarers and their families are drawn into novel livelihood projects such as agriculture and small sari-sari (variety) stores without the needed background and training, thereby resulting in financial losses.

Leonardo Servidad of the Apostleship of the Sea added they have trained seafarers’ families to at least empower women to say no to unreasonable spending.

With the government’s goal of making inclusive growth a reality in the coming years, more and more Filipino seafarers will find employment abroad. It is always an opportune time for the government to insulate seafarers and other migrant workers from illegal recruiters and labor contract violations.

It would also be a boost for government to immediately act on requests for assistance, whether consular or legal. CBCPNews