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|Friday, 23 September 2011 18:02|
The apparent disconnect between the EU and the IMO over Filipino seafarers’ standards of competency raises some interesting questions.
One the one hand, the Europeans have raised the threat of de-recognising the country’s certificates after an inspection by the European Maritime Safety Agency (EMSA) found fault with the standards of training and the supervision of those standards. The threat was taken so seriously by the government of the Philippines that it announced last week it had made a full report to Brussels outlining how it had dealt with the deficiencies. (It remains to be seen whether the EC has accepted the Asian country has put its house in order.)
On the other hand, the same government proudly announced in July (while it was still dealing with the EU’s concerns) it had “for the third time” (the other two occasions were in 2005 and 2009) retained its presence on the IMO’s so-called White List of countries deemed to be in compliance with the UN agency’s Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping (STCW) Convention.
“The White List affirms the capacities and diligence of the Philippines in ensuring the competence of Filipino seafarers," said Rosalinda Baldoz, the country’s Labour and Employment Secretary at the time.
Similar things have been said by her predecessors, particularly when the country was included in the first White List 11 years ago, when failure to achieve approval from the IMO’s “panel of experts” would have been regarded as nothing short of a national catastrophe in a country heavily reliant on the incomes earned by its citizens working overseas.
Last year, for example, seafarers (or rather “sea-based workers”, a category that includes non-seafarers) remitted over US$3.8 billion, almost a quarter of all remittances from the country’s overseas workers. European ship-owners form one of the biggest groups employing Filipino seafarers, with over US$1 billion being sent from Europe. Norway (outside the EU but bound to it by the European Economic Area treaty), the UK and Denmark are among the biggest sources of remittances, with Filipinos, at around 2,000, now the second-most numerous foreign nationality serving on UK-flag ships after Poles.
Not all Filipinos employed by European ship-owners will work on EU-flag ships, as open registers remain a popular choice among EU-based companies, but if the threat to de-recognise Filipino certificates were to be carried out, ship-owners with EU-flag ships would face the choice of replacing them with seafarers from recognised countries or switching ships to those flags that recognise the Asian country’s qualifications. The latter option would seem more practical, but ships calling at EU ports might still face the gauntlet of port state control inspectors running the rule over crew competency.
That the EU does not make idle threats was shown last year when it withdrew its recognition of STCW certificates issued by Georgia, although they continue to be recognised by other countries such as Hong Kong and the country, like the Philippines, remains on the IMO White List, the latest edition of which was published in May this year. The action against Georgia will have made the Philippines take notice, as once again the goose that lays the golden eggs was in danger of being cooked.
Georgia, of course, is a minnow compared with the Philippines and its de-recognition will have caused barely a ripple, except for those companies that had, perhaps unwisely, turned to it as a new source of seafarers. Taking the same action against the world’s biggest supplier of maritime manpower is of a different order and would cause ructions not only with the Philippines but also within the EU itself.
As in other areas, the centralised bureaucracy of the EU seeks to exert ever greater influence over its member states, which as flag-states might wish to retain their own powers of regulating safety on ships registered with them, including vetting the competency of seafarers of whatever nationality. Ignoring both the IMO White List and the findings of EMSA inspections might, however, begin to seem an expensive duplication, if not triplication, of effort, particularly in times of government cutbacks. The UK’s Maritime and Coastguard Agency, responsible for such vetting, is, for example, facing cuts to its budget of a third over the next four years.
Outside the EU countries like Japan, whose ship-owners have come to rely heavily on Filipinos, carry out their own vetting of maritime colleges, while the ship-owners themselves continue to invest significant sums in training facilities. Individual employers around the world are also forced to spend on upgrading the skills of Filipinos.
The apparent contradiction between the IMO White List and the EU raises the question of what purpose the former serves if other authorities deem a country regarded and sanctioned as compliant by the UN agency to be deficient in the way it trains its seafarers. One might assume that there are two different sets of criteria being used, of which the IMO’s is the inferior, and the reason for that is political.
A generous interpretation might be that the White List is a minimum that countries can either accept or choose to ignore. If every country were to decide unilaterally, however, that it would do its own vetting of other countries’ standards, the result would be chaos.
A less generous interpretation might be that some countries do not place much faith in the White List, even though they are parties to the international body that created and maintains it. Their faith in another supranational body in the shape of EMSA might be somewhat higher but still less than that in their own abilities.
The question still remains of what the reaction will be if the EU carries out its threat to de-recognise Filipino certificates. Will member states that have vetted and approved some, if not all, Filipino institutions abide by the decision? Will ship owners switch to non-EU flags or wait and see what happens?
The answers in the long term rest with the Philippines, but it is short-term answers that employers would prefer.
Andrew Guest – BIMCO
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