I used to cover Manila’s crewing sector as a long-longtime correspondent for British maritime publications. Since kissing ass was not in my vocabulary, I had a reputation for being a maverick who thought little of throwing brickbats at the bigwigs. But who cares about popularity? As a journalist, I did what I had to do and I did the best that I could. Over the years, I learned four important lessons about the local manning business and its underlying culture. They would eventually drive me to give up on this sector, to wit:
Seafarers are not asking for much. They certainly don’t expect to be treated like prima donnas. They just want a seaworthy vessel, good pay, decent food and accommodations at sea, and humane employers. Unfortunately, these needs are not always met. Seafarers from developing countries often get the short end of the stick — victims, not only of those who abuse them, but of a system that has virtually reduced them to mere commodities. Call it wishful thinking, but the following changes would help reverse the situation.
I have encountered many CEOs of manning companies in Manila. Some were quite admirable: kind-hearted, generous and professional in their dealings. Others were less savoury characters. The following are five of the latter kind.
In this guest article, maritime training expert Captain Richard Teo takes a hard look at the International Convention on Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping for Seafarers (STCW) and the accompanying Code. He identifies some shortfalls and bats for a paradigm shift that would place greater emphasis on competence-based training and assessment. Captain Teo is a fellow at the Royal Institution Singapore/Manila; visiting lecturer at the Australian Maritime College (University of Tasmania); and Board member at GlobalMET.
All seafarers live under a curse. It is called revalidation. “Why the hell do I need to have my certificate revalidated?” Every seafarer must have asked the question at one time or another. It’s a fair question to ask. Neither knowledge nor experience has an expiry date. And yet, in many cases seafarers must show evidence every five years that they have maintained the standards of competence under the International Convention on Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping for Seafarers (STCW).
It’s the worst of times for both ships and seafarers.
The World Trade Organization in Geneva has forecast world merchandise trade to plummet by 13% in 2020. If the coronavirus pandemic is not brought under control and governments fail to coodinate their policy responses, the drop could be as much as 32%.
There is a culture of greed in maritime Manila which reminds me of Gustave Doré‘s drawing of the greedy and indulgent pushing rocks in Dante’s Inferno. Not all have succumbed to the greed. I have known a few spirits whose kind-heartedness and generosity have helped preserve my faith in humanity. However, many folks, particularly in Manila’s manning community, have capitulated to Mammon, to the siren call of money. The following are two of my personal encounters with them, both excerpted from my e-book, Close Encounters in Maritime Manila:
Non-EU countries supplying crews to EU-flagged vessels undergo periodic inspections by the European Maritime Safety Agency (EMSA). Some may see this as outside interference, an assault even on national sovereignty. But that is just the way things are. Now, the EMSA inspectors can be a bit pedantic when it comes to the International Convention on Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping for Seafarers (STCW). They may nitpick or find fault in small details. The following may help maritime officials and training institutions brace themselves for the dreaded visit by EMSA:
To be sure, not all manning agents are bad. Some are scrupulous and treat seafarers fairly. In Manila, however, there is a culture of greed to which many crewing companies have succumbed. I am reminded of an 1881 illustration (pictured above) from the 19th-century weekly newspaper, L’Illustration européenne. It shows an old man taking bags of gold coins to his deathbed and exclaiming “Alas, must I leave you my dear lambs”.
Between 2005 and 2019, the European Maritime Safety Agency (EMSA) made a total of 74 visits to non-EU countries — from Israel and Tunisia to Indonesia and the Philippines. This shows how seriously the EU takes the International Convention on Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping for Seafarers (STCW). However, in no instance did EMSA make public its findings. The lack of transparency may save some countries from embarassment, but ultimately, it is neither good for them or their seafarers.
For the nth time since 2006, the European Maritime Safety Agency (EMSA) is conducting another inspection in the Philippines to verify its complaince with the International Convention on Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping for Seafarers (STCW). It normally inspects non-EU countries supplying crews to EU-flagged ships once every five years. This entire thing has been a never-ending fandango. All the dancers have been going round and round to the STCW music. They must be tired by now, so why not cut to the chase? In my view, the EMSA team needs to ask only three questions at this stage.
The STCW convention sets minimum standards for the training and certification of seafarers. That’s all well and good, but is competency enough for ship officers? Many a seasoned captain has figured in horrific sea accidents, not on account of bad weather or an unseaworthy vessel, but because of some character flaw.