DILEMMA IN CREW CHANGE
The Association of Licensed Manning Agencies (ALMA) was organized in the crucible of the pandemic to protect crews of small Licensed Manning Agencies (LMAs) which cannot obtain quarantine and transportation slots for their crews automatically given to major LMAs.
This is predictable: Government feels great in addressing repatriates in major numbers than the piecemeal crew of marginal LMAs. Besides, established professional associations as the Joint Manning Group (JMG) and the Filipino Association for Mariners Employment (FAME) must be listened to first, plus the volume of seafarers PTC hires, and Magsaysay hold on the hospitality staff of global cruise liners.
Such is the crux of the irony: the large volume has overwhelmed Government capability (the pandemic being unique and responses are both inadequate and proto-expertise); the small volume of seafarers set aside is replete with human sadness, mass media feasting on the shortfalls and personal trajectories.
The problem is exacerbated with the truism bad news sells good.
David and Goliath.
ALMA claims JMG and FAME large organizations predictably slower to react than ALMA’s membership who may chat and act at once. Some observers may find merit in the claim. Others insist JMG and FAME can see the whole forest and not just the trees ALMA cuddles to --- what then: overview or micro-manage?
An LMA claims an Indian ship captain cannot believe a mentally-stressed Filipino crew cannot disembark in Leyte, a part of his country. A Filipino crew from Brazil is suspected of mental disorder because he does not have a reliever. LMAs cannot do anything because of restrictions on crew change. Personalizing a solution is touching. But, is it the proper regimen for a global problem?
LMAs become the "fall guy" as seafarers wrestle with the mandatories (and inadequacies) of quarantine, RT-PCR results, expenses, loss of income. What is the win-win solution mutually beneficial to Government and the LMAs? And the Principals and seafarers?
There is a belief LMAs are not persuasive enough for crew change. This is dead wrong. Businesswise, LMAs earn on this requirement. But the problems do not commensurate to the earnings. Crew change has even generated a combined appeal of ALL major professional maritime associations --- local and global--- so as not to disrupt the global logistic chain that move some 90% of world cargo, at least.
But Port Administrations are unwilling to relax sovereignty and fear of infection.
Principals are not of much empathy as they decide on the basis of business. LMAs are on the grid to follow, or loose the account. Fact is, requirements between ports are near impossible to fulfil within time demanded.
The Department of Transport (DOTr) on May 29th released through the MARINA the Protocol on Crew Change and Repatriation of Seafarers. DOTr-MARINA outlines procedures on ship crew changes, repatriation of seafarers amid the coronavirus crisis.
Prior to this, the MARINA Board issued a resolution on 23 April 2020 which recognizes seafarers as “key workers” alongside the other essential workers during the pandemic.
The Inter-Agency Task force for the Management of Emerging and Infectious Diseases (IATF-MEID) issued a resolution on 13 May 2020 directing government agencies to fast-track the processing of employment documents, facilitate deployment.
The Philippine government has responded to the request of the International Maritime Organization (IMO) to keep shipping and supply chains open and grant special travel exemptions to seafarers in response to the pandemic.
Professional seafarers and marine personnel should be granted exemptions from national travel or movement restrictions to allow them to join or leave ships, and that governments should permit professional seafarers and marine personnel to disembark ships in port and transit through their territory (i.e. to an airport) to allow crews to be changed and seafarers to be repatriated.
The MARINA was quick to support with its Circular 4204/Add.14dated 5 May 2020; earlier assuring procedures on crew changes and on the repatriation of seafarers are in compliance with safety and health protocols set by the Department of Health (DOH). Bureau of Quarantine (BOQ) and the DOTr.
The Protocol was revised for the 10th time last June 8th but LMAs appeal to revert to them choosing whether to undertake Rapid Test or RT-PCR Test (as China and other nations may differ from the Philippine choice), noting:
1. Principals would not require COVID Test prior joining ship as these are costly and no guarantee seafarers would remain negative until joining vessel;
2. IMO 4204 says test recommendatory, not mandatory;
3. Many countries are not requiring test as a pre-condition of entry;
4. While RT-PCR test is the standard, it is by no means 100% accurate. There is also no assurance that a person tested negative would not get infected while travelling to the country of destination;
5. Shortage of RT-PCR Test Kits is a recurring issue, resulting into crew change cancellations and/or delays;
6. Not all DOH Accredited Laboratories accept walk-ins; those accepting charge so high – making the Philippines the most expensive RT-PCR in the world;
7. Processing and issuance of test results are very unpredictable, going as far as 21 days.
8. Quarantine facilities are heavily congested. Where would those tested negative stay to remain Covid-free until departure?
June 8 Protocol.
1. LMAs or Principals are responsible that all necessary documents and clearances are complete and coordinated with concerned agencies and Local Government Units;
2. With the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (OWWA), the LMAs or Principals shall provide the transportation of seafarers from point of hire to their destination for crew changes and repatriation, pursuant to the Maritime Labour Convention, 2006;
3. LMAs or Principals shall arrange for COVID-19 Testing of the seafarers as recommended by DOH and the issuance of medical clearance;
4. Only DOH-accredited testing laboratories, medical practitioners and quarantine facilities shall be recognized in this Protocol;
5. OWWA shall assist seafarers not affiliated with any LMA;
6. Concerned Government shall: (a) Ensure assistance is provided for the safe and orderly crew change; (b) Facilitate the processing and release of any document required.
7. All must wear appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE), observe proper hygiene and health protocols.
LMA can’t still understand why our Government insist on the test and isolation (2—3 days before departure) when this is the look-out of Owners/Principals and the host country.
Here is another heckle to such policy that is more Popish than the Pope: in a crew of 12 tested before leaving Manila to Japan, one was found positive on arrival to Japan. The 11 found negative were admitted and stayed 14 days quarantined. The one found positive was isolated, tested three times and found negative. All 12 now are at work.
The lessons: (a) No test is 100% accurate and may drastically vary on the time and circumstance conducted (b) ease up requirements as Principals /LMAs are willing to take full the risk and responsibility should seafarers be afflicted.
Atty. Irish Baguilat, President - Dohle Seafront Crewing Manila, warns MARINA Administrator Empedrad into believing a message from a crew that, “Their LMA has no plan of repatriating their overdue crew onboard.”
Baguilat takes strong exception as the sweeping claim is “generally due to lack of information to appreciate and discern the real constraints LMAs and Shipowners are facing to relieve them.”
A crew claims as unattended coming from China. Fake. China does not allow crew change for Filipinos in any Chinese port. Change of such policy is actively lobbied by LMAs.
Singapore is another “Highly Not Possible” zone. The mandatory 14 days notification or application for crewchange is too short alongside unpredictable flight bookings for Onsigners and Offsigners (in turn, due to our IATF cap on flight arrivals).
This creates a huge bottleneck. An LMA was forced to book a 180-seater from Air Asia for SIN/MNL offsigners because PAL cancelled its connecting KL/MNL leg without prior notice.
The clear side.
In fairness, PAL and many other airlines are compelled to cancel scheduled flights due to the limitation of arriving passengers imposed at NAIA.
This is an urgent issue that need to be resolved. Sans domestic flights or land-sea modes, seafarers cannot be mobilized --- and when lucky, must wait on the roulette of available flights for international destinations.
LMAs disagree on IATF ruling of not allowing crewchanges in our domestic ports. If this is science-driven, this is certainly a mind-set as confined as a viral slide.
Dare to sail.
Situation is not hopeless though, LMAs may take blows back and center, from regulators and implementation. But for how long, that’s the survival question.
An LMA president does a simple math for a medium size agency deploying 500/month:
RT-PCR 500 x 6,200= P3.1-million; Min 3 day hotel x 2000 x 500 = P3-million; Food 3 x 1000 x 500 = P1.5-million; Monthly total, P7.6-million; Annual total, P91.2-million extra expense.
Survival hangs on being allowed to choose between RT-PCR and RAPID TEST. If not granted, there is a great probability of collapse, taking with it livelihood and family dislocation.
Certainly, these remittances from sea-based OFWs of the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas (central bank) may have drastic downward spills: 2017 - $5.9B; 2018 - $6.1B; 2019 - $6.5B.
There are some 300 LMAs, a good number facing bankruptcy.
As of June 12, the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) has repatriated a total of 40,930 OFWs since it began bringing back Filipinos affected by Covid-19 in February.
Of this, 58 % (23,714 OFs) are sea-based; 42% (17,216 OFs) are land-based.
The Department of Labor and Employment projects 151,107 OFWs may be repatriated from July to December 2021, 40% of them are seabased and job displacement at 1,005,031.