Securing seafarers’ jobs and promoting PH as a safe crew change hub

As published by The Manila Times on July 1, 2021

Licensed manning agencies (LMAs) welcomed the recent prudent judgment and flexibility exercised by some government officials that helped in easing up the challenges they face in staging crew change operations in Manila.

On the eve of the June 25, Day of the Seafarer celebration, which focused this year on “Fair Future 4 Seafarers,” officials of the Bureau of Quarantine (BOQ) helped prevent another loss of jobs for Filipino seafarers.

Numbers don’t lie. Stringent and inflexible travel restrictions here and abroad barred the deployment of over 250,000 sea-based workers last year, making it inarguably the pandemic’s biggest impact on Filipino seafarers.

Deployment statistics showed that the number of seafarers deployed was less than half of the figure; it plummeted to just over 252,000 in 2020, an unprecedented 54 % drop, from about 470,00 in 2019.

Hence, the country can only ensure a “Fair Future 4 Filipino Seafarers” if seafarers’ jobs could be secured as well as recover the numerous positions they erstwhile held before they were replaced last year by other nationalities.

The Filipino crew of MT Maritime Nordic would have lost their jobs had not BOQ exercised flexibility in implementing the country’s health and safety protocols vis a vis the strict RT-PCR requirements of China, the ship’s port of destination.

In the conflict, the Chinese embassy only accepts RT-PCR tests conducted at the premises of its accredited molecular laboratory.

As the embassy’s “gentle reminders” explicitly says in its letter to LMAs: “Off-site sampling or partner clinic sending sampling is not accepted, and all China-bound passengers should only go to the accredited medical center for on-site sampling.”

In contrast, BOQ does not allow onsigners from leaving their quarantine facility, even for COVID-testing unless they will go directly to board their vessel.

A drive-through swabbing, however, is allowed by the Chinese embassy as long as it is conducted within the premises of the accredited molecular laboratory.

The crew’s crewing company, Döhle Seafront Crewing (Manila), sent a request to BOQ as early as June 17 to allow the drive-through RT-PCR testing and let the crew change to proceed.

To bridge the gap between the Philippines’ and China’s protocols and persuade BOQ to accede to its request, the crewing company promised to observe some mitigating actions.

Among these mitigating measures were to transport the crew that was earlier prevented from joining the ship to the testing center, Philippine Airport Diagnostic Laboratory (PADL), to be escorted by BOQ officers.

Six Filipino seafarers repatriated from China
Moreover, in transporting the crew, Döhle Seafront committed to implementing the following:

1) one crew and one driver ratio per vehicle;

2) both the crew and driver shall wear protective gears such as coveralls, face masks, gloves, and face shields;

3) all vehicles shall be sanitized before use;

4) crew shall proceed back to the quarantine facility immediately after swabbing; and

5) all drivers had an antigen test and medical certification prior to driving the crew.

The BOQ, through its Director for Field Operations Dr. Roberto Salvador, acceded to the company’s request, paving the way for the successful RT-PCR testing of the crew and their eventual boarding of MT Maritime Nordic at the Port of Manila on June 23.

Lawyer Iris Baguilat, president of Döhle Seafront, expressed her utmost appreciation for the consideration and the extra mile made by BOQ officials just to accommodate the company’s request.

“Such flexibility, without jeopardizing our health safety, will certainly go a long way in securing jobs for our seafarers and boost the country’s position as a secure and safe crew change hub,” the Döhle Seafront chief executive said.

“As we move forward, we hope to continuously reconcile more conflicting protocols among nations to achieve time and cost efficiency, and help ease the persisting implications of the pandemic on the shoulders of our stakeholders and principals, and safeguard the jobs for Filipino seafarers,” she furthered.

It goes to show that, in stemming the spread in the country of COVID-19, government agencies can be sensitive and flexible, too, to reap economic gains as long as the health and safety protocols were not compromised.