Filipino seafarers are the world’s choice!



It’s the oft-repeated claim that nobody in the maritime world can argue against: Filipino seamen are the best in their league.


The International Mariners Management Association of Japan (IMMAJ) and European shipping companies say Filipinos are the preferred seafarers to operate ocean-going vessels, from luxury cruise ships to giant tankers, cargo and container ships. China, Indonesia, the Russian Federation, and Ukraine are the other choices.


Filipinos have long dominated the global maritime industry, making up about 30% of the world’s seafarers since 1987. Most recently, however, China whose workers have now become English-proficient has taken over as the top provider. The International Chamber of Seafarer Workforce Report 2021 puts the latest number of seafarers at 1,892,720 worldwide. While shipowners are hiring more crew from China, Vietnam, Ukraine, Russia, and Myanmar, most ships’ crews remain Filipino. Despite the Pandemic, the country has remained the world’s manning capital, with more Filipino seafarers sailing on international vessels.


However, Filipino seafarers have become increasingly challenged by adverse findings of the European Maritime Safety Agency (EMSA) from compliance issues of the International Convention on Standards of Training, Certification, and Watchkeeping for Seafarers (STCW) in the maritime education, training, and certification systems. Meanwhile, the same ICS Report warned seafarers of severe potential officer shortage. “We want you; you are the best. But shape up,” is a message that the Filipino maritime industry is now struggling to address. Yet it is misunderstood.


The Maritime Industry Authority (MARINA), by law, is the government agency charged with ensuring that the country’s maritime institutions meet the standards of the 1978 STCW. “Let us keep the Filipino seafarers in world-class rank” was a marching order, or else “it may revoke recognition for Filipino seafarers.” Among the demands is to correct the reported deficiencies, especially in modern-day simulators and onboard training. Automation or technology is now a big challenge.


Maritime history and culture


Seafaring and navigation are second nature to many Filipinos, especially in coastal communities of the archipelago. Hence, it is not difficult to see why Filipino seafarers quickly adapt to the ship and the sea environment. Archipelagic and maritime, the country has for centuries been dependent on ocean-going vessels, ships, boats, and nautical highways to move goods, services, and people across over 7,100 islands. My favorite maritime learning in the family and school is that in 1521 when the Spanish colonizers came, they found the Filipinos skillful seamen and accomplished boat-builders. Embarking on the Manila-Acapulco galleon trade, they exploited the skills of the “Indios” to construct galleon ships made of local hardwoods. They operated their vessels with the natural seafarers who had never gone to school for formal training.


A history of colonization and struggle has inculcated a culture of resilience, hard work, resourcefulness, and adaptability among Filipinos. These they carry everywhere they go, especially when challenged. They become more adept at their work and profession with proper education and training. Among seafarers worldwide, the Filipinos are highly trainable, compliant with rules, friendly, fluent and competent in English, hospitable, patient, and caring even for other nationalities.


Where else can one see a seafarer with all these qualities who can still cut a smile while performing multiple tasks that are not part of their contracts, toiling beyond working hours, or sometimes being discriminated against or ill-treated? Moreover, most shipowners say that the Filipino seafarers are the most reliable since they have this tremendous innate ability to deal even with working-at-height hazards and risks on the deck, in the engine room, anywhere onboard the ship. No complaints! “Maabilidad!” But these natural and learned attributes can at once be assets and liabilities that abusive employers may exploit at the expense of the poor workers.


Challenges


Despite the seeming challenging work conditions and loneliness away from their families, one wonders why Filipino seafarers generally remain happy despite multiple work demands onboard ships? The 2020 Crew Wellness Survey of the SAFETY4SEA found that seafarers from the Philippines are “the most satisfied seafarer group by nationality serving on board ships.” Why not? Consider this: by average, a seaman receives from US$550 to US$650 or PhP 27,000 to PhP 30,000 a month; an officer from 3rd mate to chief officer pockets US$2,800 to US$5,000 or PhP 140,000 to PhP250,000 a month depending on the type of ship (cargo, tanker or passenger) and shipping company.


According to 2nd Mate Alexander Aco, Officer-in-Charge of the Office for Onboard Training at Mariners Polytechnic Colleges Foundation (MPCF), Canaman campus, the big salary, more than anything else, is a game-changer in choosing a maritime career over other jobs. The minimum monthly wage of the Filipino worker is US$140 or P7,000, which keeps families afloat. Being away from the family for five to nine months but getting paid more than what one gets in the Philippines is a choice the poor takes.


Poverty and underdevelopment is pushing more and more Filipinos to leave and work abroad. Meantime, the maritime industry, including seafarers’ huge remittances, will continue to contribute to the Philippine economy. It becomes imperative that the government and the private sector, especially the maritime education and training (MET) sector in whose hands depend the sustained skills upgrading among seafarers, should work toward a more comprehensive and integrated policy to develop the Filipino maritime industry in all its components. Shipbuilding is a priority thrust where Filipinos have also proven their mastery: for jobs provision, steel industry, transportation, sustained onboard training, disaster response, safety, and security.