Manning agencies seek Go’s help amid crisis brought by the pandemic

By Raffy Ayeng | As published by The Daily Tribune on July 17, 2021

A group of manning agencies has sought the help of Senator Christopher Lawrence “Bong” Go to address the current dilemma that the maritime industry is facing amid the decreased and limited inbound passenger capacity in the country’s airports and insufficient quarantine facilities for returning overseas workers.

In its position letter, the ALMA Maritime Group (ALMA), composed of 57 licensed manning agencies acting as Marine HR that deploys at least 160,000 Filipino seafarers on international sea-going vessels, asked Go’s support in its calls to upsurge the inbound flight passenger limit and increase the limited quarantine facilities used by arriving OFWs, particularly seafarers.

“Because of this inbound flight passenger limit, international flights flying into the country could only offer limited seating. And, to keep up with their operational expenses, airlines either increase their fares or prioritize selling the most premium and expensive seats, or simply cancel the flights. Both increase the costs of crew changes,” the letter reads, signed by Atty. Iris Baguilat, trustee and chairman of the Sub-committee for Labor and Employment External Affairs Committee of the ALMA Maritime Group.

Baguilat said the current costs of international flights to the Philippines range at around $1,500.00 and peak at $4,500.00 per person.

“The cost itself is fourfold the monthly wage of a regular seafarer. Due to these unaffordable high costs, ship owners and charter parties involved opt to cancel and postpone crew change until a more cost-efficient option becomes available,” Baguilat added.

Flight disruptions

She added that off-signing is unavoidable and could not be delayed due to safety and regulatory issues, contrary to the Maritime Labor Convention of 2006 (MLC, 2006), which stipulates that the maximum allowable tenure of a seafarer onboard per contract is limited to no longer than 11 months.

“Beyond regulations, staying at sea beyond contract is also a safety risk for the crew and the vessel as crew suffering from fatigue is prone to commit errors and accidents that may lead to injuries, death, and pollution. Thus, all ships are heavily regulated and penalized to keep their crew within the allowed advisable length of service and all states especially the Philippines must ensure that the ships can change their crew when needed. This further poses unsafe conditions to stranded Filipino seafarers as with or without a flight, they must disembark,” the letter said.

Making the situation worse, international flights to the Philippines can be randomly canceled leaving seafarers stranded abroad, waiting weeks or a month for Philippines flights to become available, Baguilat noted.

“Among the problems seafarers encounter in this situation are mental health issues, additional personal expenses, fatigue, and further exposure to risks of COVID-19. At the same time, only Filipino seafarers are faced with these issues also meant additional consequential costs to the foreign shipowners who are the job providers at sea,” Baguilat emphasized.

Shorter quarantine days

The group stated that additional quarantine days affect facility availability and inbound capacity as the IATF-MEID Resolution No. 114, Series of 2021 states that all arriving passengers shall undergo 14 days of quarantine upon arrival.

“The regulation also translates that the first 10 days of which shall be observed in a BOQ-approved quarantine facility. The lengthening quarantine period, coming from seven days was matched with a reduced person instead of an increased number of rooms available for quarantining. Currently, the 10-day on-site quarantine requirement in place further takes room slots that could be allocated to other inbound overseas workers – making the problem significantly unresolved,” she added.

The Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (OWWA) was given a congressional budget of P5.2 billion to pay for hotel and transportation of repatriates. But according to the group, only P 1 billion was given by the government, making OWWA’s debt to quarantine facilities ballooned to P300 million as per a 24 June report.

Calls to Urgent Action

Further, ALMA Maritime emphasized that instead of pushing the release of the budgeted funds to pay for quarantine rooms and transport, the government decided to reduce the number of Filipinos returning to the Philippines invariably, risking the safety of seafarers overseas who continue to work in order to keep the global supply chain running.

“The high cost of inbound flights significantly increases the cost of hiring Filipino crew. If the government maintains this strategy, our seafarers will lose their jobs onboard as principals continuously find more sustainable and cost-efficient means to operate (and man) their vessels – leaving the jobs of some 400,000 active Filipino seafarers at risk to be given out to other nationalities. Thus, the ALMA Maritime Group asks for the immediate release of the remaining budgeted funds of OWWA for the quarantine facilities, to increase the number of quarantine facilities, and to increase the Philippine inbound flight passenger limit,” the group said.