By Perla Aragon Choudhury
The money sent home by overseas Filipino sailors rose by $108 million to a new record of $2.501 billion in the first nine months of 2009, an increase of or 4.51 percent from $2.393 billion over the same period in 2008, according to the Trade Union Congress of the Philippines (TUCP).
TUCP secretary general and former Senator Ernesto Herrera said the rise in remittances from sea-based migrant Filipino workers is due to increased enlistment by ship owners in Europe and Asia.
“A growing number of European and Asian shipping firms is disbanding their multinational crews, and replacing them wholesale with all-Filipino personnel that are younger and more able,” says Herrera.
“Foreign employers find Filipino sailors quick learners, and easier to train compared to other nationals. This may be due to their superior instruction here, apart from their ability to understand English,” he adds.
About 229,000 Filipino sailors are on board merchant shipping vessels around the world at any given time, data from the Department of Labor and Employment show.
The Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA) reports that in 2007 – the year for which the most recent data are available – Filipino seafarers were employed by 1,157 registered/accredited manning agencies, up from 869 in 2006.
The Philippines, says POEA, has been the world’s leading supplier of seafarers since 1987, making it the manning capital of the world.
Data in 2007 showed that Filipino seamen were scattered aboard vessels bearing various flags of registry: Panama – 51,614; Bahamas – 29,681; Liberia – 21,966; Singapore – 10,308; Marshall Islands – 9, 772; United Kingdom – 8,172 ; Malta – 7,513; Cyprus – 7, 052; the Netherlands – 7,017; and Norway – 6, 975.
By vessel type, here are the 2007 statistics on Filipino seamen: passenger-type – 47, 782; bulk carriers – 42, 356; containers – 31, 983; tankers – 25,011; oil/product tankers – 14, 462; general cargo ships – 10,754.; chemical tankers – 7,502 ; tugboats – 6,610; pure car carriers – 5,742; and gas tankers – 3,471.
By type of work, the 226,900 local seafarers deployed overseas in 2007 were assigned as follows: seamen – 31,818; oilers – 19,491; ordinary semen – 17,355; mess men – 7,810; chief cooks – 7,778; bosuns – 7,737; third engineers – 7,056; third mates – 6,599; and waiters – 6,388.
In late 2008, even as the global financial crisis was wreaking havoc on virtually every major economic sector, the manning industry suffered minimal setback in terms of job losses.
“The bulk of the seafaring industry is not as affected as people might think,” says Miguel Angel Rocha, vice-president for business development of CF Sharp Crew Management, Inc., one of the country’s leading manning companies. His firm is now the major business of CCF Sharp, a port agency business began in the late 1930s by his grandfather and business partner CF Sharp. It is also the first Filipino manning company to be certified as compliant with ISO 9000 Standards.
“The manning industry is a trailing indicator,” Rocha tells Planet Philippines in an interview. “Only after an event will it be affected. Lately, ships had been 15% laid up, or out of service, and by 2009 the figure was 30%. But jobs were not lost because of the `hot’ or `warm’ nature of the industry – a ship always needs engineers and crew to operate, maintain and mobilize it.
“Chinese factories stopped ordering raw materials and so bulk ships were the first to get affected. By November 2008 there was a decrease in daily chartering from $180, 0000 per day to $3,000-5,000 per day in September. After Christmas [of 2008] and New Year [of 2009], there were no more orders and container ships were down. We don’t see a significant loss of jobs but we do see slower growth.”
Rocha is optimistically guarded about the prospects in 2010.
“Even if the global economy gets better, it will take a long time before we see a recovery in our industry,” he stresses.
He warns that if the market worsens, jobs will be harder to find.
“Also, seafarers now working might have to work less and stay on vacation longer. There is no growth as ship owners try to maintain their pace of work where they have 15 persons on board for the 10 actually needed.”
But then, Rocha explains, the shipping industry is cyclical. “A new ship means new crew in boom times. Now this is going to change and so they’re laying vessels but not selling them for scrap, and giving the crew longer shore leave. But then again, things might turn around and it will be boom time again.”
Poaching of officers
Rocha is actually more concerned about the poaching of senior officers, from master officers and chief mates to chief and second engineers, which could have a more dramatic impact on the industry.
The global shortage of officers is oftentimes remedied by a greater-rotation-cum-shorter-vacation solution. The problem is only a recent development, according to Rocha. Officers and ratings used to be available, mostly from the West.
“But as more ships were built in the ‘90s and today, as the economy of the West expands, British, German and Norwegian officers can earn as much or even more on land. They have left and have been replaced by officers from Poland and Ukraine.”
The vacuum could have been filled up by the local manning industry but unfortunately, there are not enough Filipinos with the required skills and training.
Lack of training
“There are 80 to 100 maritime schools offering BS Marine Transportation and BS Marine Engineering courses with a curriculum of three years in the classroom and 12 months on board a ship prior to state board exams, but less than 20 percent of the students get on board,” he laments.
Rocha cites two top maritime schools in the Philippines where slightly under 15% of the most recent graduating class have trained on a ship. Their graduates got certificates of academic equivalency but they are not on board because the majority of ship owners do not make a provision for cadets on board, who would also have to be paid.
“The problem is no one is willing to challenge ship owners,” he continues. “Some 280,000 students graduate each year. That seems a lot of seamen who could get a higher income for their families. But people don’t see the uphill battle in getting the license, and educators prey on seamen. Going abroad is not always pleasant experience and can be very daunting.”
But Rocha notes that there is a bit of positive news on the horizon as ship owners have lately invested in training. For one, the Norwegian Shipowners Association has a program for cadets.
But without support from POEA and the Commission for Higher Education (CHED), Rocha fears that maritime schools might not participate or offer enough slots in the training and development of seafarers.
It remains to be seen if the government and the manning industry could come up with policies and measures to address the problems and challenges. Unless there is a serious effort to meet them head-on, less and less Filipino seafarers may find their way into the open seas.