A recent BBC news article spotlighted Germany and how it’s revving up its exports, including flashy BMWs. We’re impressed but the Philippines has a factory that’s more interesting than any operated by Bayerische Motoren Werke AG (BMW), the world’s largest maker of luxury vehicles. It’s called the seafarer factory. It’s the biggest of its kind on the planet supplying ship officers, ratings and cruise ship hotel personnel to the world merchant fleet. Not many folks, however, have taken a hard look at this unique production facility.

Few are aware, for instance, that the Filipino seafarer factory was officially launched by Ferdinand Marcos in 1974. That was when the country’s labour export programme really started, with Mr Marcos promulgating in May 1974 a new Labour Code and simultaneously creating the now-defunct Overseas Employment Development Board (OEDB) and the National Seamen Board (NSB). Today, 36 years on, production at the factory continues non-stop. Filipinos have completely lost interest in owning and operating oceangoing ships, let alone building them. Manning – and its mutant, bareboat chartering – is where the money’s at.

Raw materials will never be in short supply. Poverty and unemployment, not love for the sea, are driving many young Filipinos to become seafarers. This explains why the seafarer factory has a huge Production Department featuring nearly 90 maritime academies. Sadly, not all those who enter the assembly line come out of the factory as finished products. The head of a major maritime institution in the Southern Philippines tells us that out of every 1,000 cadets, only 80% get to complete the first three years of academic studies. And out of this number, only 18-21% are able to find a shipboard slot to fulfill the 12 months apprenticeship required for graduation.

Small wonder many cadets end up working as waiters, security guards and even janitors. It’s an utter waste of human resources and parents’ hard-earned money. But who gives a hoot? There’s more where the lads came from. The government overseers of the factory even have a ‘bridging programme’ designed to encourage mechanical engineering students to shift to the maritime field. More fodder for the factory.

Inevitably, mass production leads to a fall in product quality. Some of the factory’s foreign customers know this only too well. So they’ve made arrangements with the Production Department to put some of the boys on cadetship programmes to ensure quality. The scholarships and financial aid have resulted in tens of hundreds of fresh officer graduates getting employed but they have not raised the overall calibre of Filipino seafarer education. 

It may not be obvious to outsiders but the seafarer factory has a Quality Control Department. Comprising this unit are the state agencies in charge of seafarers’ education, training and certification, all of which are hobbled by inefficiency and corruption. There’s a separate Post-Production Department made up of some 65 state-accredited training centres but only a handful do a proper job of polishing and upgrading the products churned out by the academies. The rest exist solely to make dough.

The most interesting segment of the factory must be the Marketing Department. Close to 400 crewing agencies sell the factory produce to foreigners, some more professionally than others. It’s not a cohesive group. Backstabbing and cutthroat competition are rife, and many are into crew poaching whilst a few sly ones try to pirate shipping principals. Recruiting seafarers for export remains a crude affair. Instead of harnessing the power of the Internet and social media such as Twitter, most agents solicit for officers and crew at Manila’s Luneta Park.

Despite all this, the Filipino seafarer factory is chugging along. It has even produced many fine ship officers. Foreign clients still come to this part of the world for their manning requirements. Where else would they go? Other countries are not turning out enough seafarers because they would rather build ships, computers and BMWs. And they all seem to be better off by doing so.

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