Sunday, 4 April 2010

Seafarers forever

By BERNARDO M. VILLEGAS
Manila Bulletin
http://www.mb.com.ph/articles/250951/seafarers-forever

Forever may be too ambitious a word. But I can say that as long as there are Filipinos, there will be Filipino seafarers, especially officers, manning the international ships.

Even if in the next twenty years, endowed with more enlightened and honest leaders, we can succeed in eradicating poverty in the Philippines, there will continue to be hundreds of thousand of Filipinos working aboard ships all over the world.

There is no question that Filipinos are preferred over other nationalities by international shipping companies, whether they be Japanese, Norwegian, or American.

Filipinos take to the sea as fish in water. It will not be poverty that will drive them to become maritime professionals but their innate talents and their competitiveness. Seafaring is a permanent professional choice for many Filipinos, especially those coming from regions like Iloilo, Cebu and island economies where there is a long-time tradition for males to choose working abroad ships as a profession.

Furthermore, our maritime schools – already among the best in the world with the help of Japanese and Norwegian companies – will get even better. We shall be turning out more maritime personnel who can become officers.

This prediction of mine is based on an extraordinary happening in 2009, a year when hundreds of international shipping vessels were mothballed in the international ports of Singapore, Hong Kong, and even Subic.

Despite the precipitous drop in the volume of trade, the amazing thing is that remittances from Filipino sailors aboard foreign ocean-going vessels sent to their relatives a whopping $3.4 billion, an increase of 12.06 percent from $3.034 in 2008. This increase was more than twice that of the total OFW remittances in 2009 which was 5.1 percent. These figures were contained in a report of former Senator Ernesto F. Herrera, Secretary-General of the Trade Union Congress of the Philippines (TUCP).

Something even more impressive is the 78.82 percent increase of the remittances from Filipino sailors based in Europe which totaled $1.156 billion compared to $509.594 million in 2008.

According to industry sources, this sterling performance was due to the retirement of aging European officers who were being replaced by equally competent young Filipino officers. This trend will intensify as Europe continues to suffer from rapid aging (the so-called demographic winter), especially in the Scandinavian countries which host the headquarters of the major international shipping lines.

On the side of the Philippines, there is an increasing number of world-class training programs for officers like the one recently established by the Japanese enterprise NYK in tandem with the Transnational Diversified Group headed by Roberto Delgado. There is also the University of Cebu which has a partnership with the International Maritime Employers Committee (IMEC), an organization based in London representing 125 shipping companies worldwide. According to IMEC, there could be a shortage of 200,000 trained and competent marine officers in the next two years.

In an article in this paper, Malou Mozo recently reported that Odd Magne Skei, Director for the Norwegian Training Center (NTC), the operational arm of the Norwegian Maritime Foundation of the Philippines Inc. said that high priority is given to Filipino seafarers by NTC on board Norwegian-owned, controlled, managed, or operated vessels.

Mr. Skei had high praises for Filipino maritime professionals: "Filipinos are known in the industry to be highly skilled professionals and for their loyalty, which is why they deserve the good pay they get for their services. The world's shipping business needs Filipino seafarers."

These complimentary words explain why 25 percent of seafarers all over the world are Filipinos. International passenger and cargo ships would be paralyzed if Filipinos were to stop working as maritime professionals.

As Secretary Herrera reported, Filipino sailors now contribute 20 cents out of every US dollar sent home by all OFWs. As poverty is reduced in the Philippines and less workers have to go abroad because of dire economic necessity, this percentage will increase even more.

Because this profession will be a permanent one in the Philippines, leaders of this industry will have to be very conscientious in searching for solutions to the social problems that result from an otherwise lucrative profession. I am referring to the necessary absence of many fathers from their respective families for several months in a given year.

Especially for growing children, this absence can cause psychological problems. Employers of these seafarers must be proactive in helping to minimize the social and psychological costs of the absent father.

The families must be provided with modern communications technology (e.g. Skype) so that there can be frequent (even daily) conversations between the parents and their children.

The number of months of home leave must be lengthened as much as possible. The children (especially teenage boys) must be helped by psychologists or guidance counsellors to minimize the trauma of long separations.

The period of having to work abroad a ship could be shortened by preparing the maritime professionals for alternative income-generating occupations back in the Philippines through entrepreneurial training or the acquisition of other professional skills such as management or information technology.

I am glad to observe that a good number of Philippine manning companies are already implementing some if not all of these interventions to address the social problems faced by families of maritime professionals.

For comments, my email address is bvillegas@uap.edu.ph.

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