For well over a decade, the Philippines has been in the crosshairs of the European Commission and its inspection arm, the European Maritime Safety Agency. In total, EMSA has made eight inspection visits to the country (the last one n 2020) to check if it has given full and complete effect to the International Convention on Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping for Seafarers (STCW).
As a rule, anything in excess is bad. Overtonnage can wreak havoc on the shipping market, particularly for ship operators. Too many players in the field (e.g., ship manning) can lead to cutthroat competition. Too much red tape can slow down the processing of seafarer documents. There are other things in the world of shipping the excess of which, although seldom or never talked about, is undesirable.
Some seafarers are undoubtedly satisfied with their manning agents. So long as the pay is good, the vessel is seaworthy, the shipowner complies with the Maritime Labour Convention, and one’s contract is renewed when it ends, what is there to complain about? Surely, though, seafarers deserve much more. The following, in my view, are seven things that make for an ideal manning agent:
Tighter regulations and increased training requirements will not lead to a culture of safety. The MV Rena (2011), Costa Concordia (2012) and SS El Faro (2015) incidents offer the best proof. Sadly, the list of 21st-century maritime disasters is far from finished.
On the other hand, who can deny the fact that shipboard safety is a matter of habit? All living creatures are “bundles of habit”, wrote Ameican psychologiest and philosopher William James in his 68-page treatise simply entitled ‘Habit’.
In Manila, cadets who serve as unpaid labour for manning agencies in the guise of internship are called “utility”. I have always found the use of this term both amusing and vexing. It sounds quirky and is one example of how Filipinos sometimes misuse or bastardise the English language.
The maritime landscape in Manila would not be complete without the cadets who work as unpaid labour for the manning agencies and some seafarer unions. Individually and collectively, these cadets are commonly called ‘utility’. The term is descriptive of the many ways these aspiring ship officers are utilised. However, I would rather use the phrase ‘cadet flunkey’ — flunkey, meaning a person who does menial or trivial work for another, especially with unquestioning obedience. It is less demeaning and more accurate.
The following are some of the tasks cadet flunkeys are made to perform in exchange for being deployed eventually as apprentice–officers. I have seen worse, but these would–be ship officers never complain. Understanbly so, since the 12-month shipboard apprenticeship is a requisite for graduation in Philippine maritime schools.
“All nonsense questions are unanswerable,” wrote the British writer and lay theologian C.S. Lewis in his book A Grief Observed, which was first published in 1961. The following questions are not nonsense. In fact, they are valid and important questions. It seems, though, that they are seldom, if ever, raised by maritime folks. I myself continue to ask these questions, but I’m not sure if I have found the answers to all of them.
Clearly, the COVID-19 pandemic has been a big blow to Filipino seafarers and the manning agents in Manila. Total deployment plunged by 54% in 2020 as the scourge of the virus disrupted supply chains and the normal process of crew change. But two trends could pose an even greater threat to Philippine manning over the long haul. Both have been slowly eating away at the country’s’ coveted standing in the global seafarer market. Yet, they do not seem to be receiving enough attention.
The overseas deployment of Filipino seafarers plummeted by 54% from 469,996 in 2019 to 217,223 in 2020, according to official government figures. This is the biggest drop ever for a single year. Hardest hit were hotel personnel for passenger ships (classified as ‘non-maritime’ but officially considered as seafarers). Their numbers declined by 64%. Deployment of ratings was down 44% with officers doing much better (only 0.48% lower). Is the bell tolling for Philippine manning?
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.