By Carmela Huelar | Photography by Anuj Raikar, Project Sea You

(As published in The Manila Times on May 12, 2021)

Some manning agencies have asked the government to be proactive in helping the manning industry preserve jobs for Filipino seafarers amid the pandemic that caused the industry to lose a sizable number of jobs to seafarers from other countries.

Cristina Garcia, president of the Association of Licensed Manning Agencies (ALMA) Maritime Group, and lawyer Iris Baguilat, co-founder of the group, took turns in explaining their position that the government has to respond to the massive loss of Filipino seafarers’ jobs on the international fleet.

During a recent live online program, Garcia was emphatic in pointing out that the biggest challenge facing the crewing industry these days is how to retain the jobs of Filipino seafarers.

“I think our biggest challenge today is how to convince our principals to continue employing Filipino seafarers,” Garcia, also president of crewing company Blue Ocean Marine and Offshore Solutions, said.

Last year, the country lost a significant share in the global seafaring market due to a combination of factors.

One of these was the government›s failure to respond quickly to the lockdowns, forcing shipowners to get seafarers from other countries, mostly from India.

Statistics from the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA) showed that last year, deployment of sea-based workers plunged by about 60 %, from 518,500 in 2019 to 217,200 only in 2020, a staggering loss of 301,200 jobs.

“We’re trying to find or determine what are the advantages in getting Filipinos,” Garcia lamented.

Nonetheless, the president of the ALMA Maritime Group, which now counts over 50 member manning agencies, remains upbeat that her group will be able to sustain the support of its principals.

“I am optimistic we can convince our foreign shipowners and ship managers to continue hiring Filipinos,” she said, stressing that the government also plays a pivotal role in winning the support of principals.

She said, “This isn’t the sole responsibility of manning agencies; we need the help from the POEA and DOLE to convince ship owners and managers to work on this”.

ALMA has written POEA Administrator Bernard Olalia, appealing to give manning agencies and their principal some flexibility in setting the wages of their seafarers.

Corroborating Garcia’s statements, Baguilat explained that employers of Filipino seafarers are also suffering due to the pandemic.

“What we ask is for us to be able to [compete] as a labor supplying nation; we should have flexibility in the wage scale because some shipowners are also suffering [because of the pandemic].”

The president of Döhle Seafront Crewing (Manila) reminded everyone that labor accounts for a significant share in the vessel’s operational expenses.

“We are one of the significant cost factors in the daily expenses of the vessel; labor is one of the highest costs. This is the reason they [principals] are sourcing out from other nationalities because we’re now really expensive.

“We’re not far from European countries [in terms of wages]. So, to get a Filipino and to get a Polish or Romanian, the wage gap is no longer significant. We were more economical in the past, that is why they turned to us, but now we no longer are. We’re trying to get slots and also protect our slots.”

Add to this, there are emerging countries that offer cheaper wages on the rating side. “So how do we position ourselves now as an industry?

“We want to spread the budget so everybody is happy. We have to compromise at a certain stage to employ more because, at the end of the day, what we want is: at least, many many families are employed.”

“Remember a seafarer has many dependents; many households depend on him including relatives and extended families,” the president of Döhle Seafront elaborated.

“So what is the gain if you have added 200 dollars versus zero deployments because you are 200 dollars more expensive than the others. That for me is a loss. We lose ships, then we lose employment, and many will go hungry just because the other [nationalities] are cheaper.”

Hence, Baguilat said it’s time to revisit the regulation on wages. “I will propose [changes] because what gain will it give us if only a few seafarers would enjoy very high wages and the majority cannot be taken in anymore; we have to spread [the crew cost] so that others would benefit.

She said that POEA Administrator Olalia had indicated his willingness to consider ALMA Maritime Group’s appeal since the role of the Labor Department is also employment generation and not just wage regulation.

Sammuel Lim, President of Great Southern Maritime, also stressed that the POEA should help the industry and not mandate minimum rates for seafarers.

He said, “we should be market-driven so that more principals can take Filipinos. The rate should be governed by the flags and port state because right now, we are too pricey, even for the ratings.”

Originally published at The Manila Times