Views of Joost Mes: THE NEW ABNORMAL
Editorialized abstract of Joost Mes views*
Following an international crew change summit in the UK, the Philippines and 12 other countries signed an international crew change pact agreeing to new measures to open up foreign borders for seafarers, increase commercial flights to expedite repatriation.
Light at the end of the tunnel? Don’t count on it – there has been no shortage of politically correct rhetoric and public sympathy for the frontliners on ships.
For one, major crew supplying countries like the Philippines, China, Russia, India and Indonesia, were absent from the virtual summit showing how low crew change problems are with those governments.
The ink on the #crewchangepact hardly dried yet Singapore imposed tighter restrictions near impossible to meet. Hong Kong and Japan followed suit; China and Vietnam remained completely closed.
The Philippines allows crew changes only in Manila. Imagine a ship calling Davao and the Filipino crew from Davao must yet go to Manila where ships are congested in Manila Bay. Compliance over common sense.
What has been agreed in the pact foresees a new era of travel for seafarers without visa, border nor quarantine restrictions. “It does not cost any money and it did not require a lot of negotiation," says Sec-General Guy Platten, International Chamber of Shipping (ICS).
Seafarers have been waiting for months now, showing they are resilient and will keep going until the job is done. But, for how long before things start to go wrong as fatigue and mental issues start to take their toll?
Imagine telling an airline pilot to “continue until further notice”. That simply would not happen. Shipping carries similar risks, the impact might be delayed but the fuse has been lit.
Daily testing capacity doubled to 30,000 and accredited laboratories totalled 72. Impressive, but processing time has also doubled in most cases. The longer processing times makes it almost impossible to satisfy requirement from some ports that test results should not be older than 48 hours upon arrival.
For Filipino seafarers alone, about 40,000 crew changes need to take place every month just to keep the world fleet running. At the start of the lockdown in April, only 400 (about 1%) crew changes took place, according to the Philippines Overseas Employment Administration (POEA).
If assume that, on average, 20% of the planned crew changes have taken place over the past four months.
This would mean that close to130,000 Filipino seafarers are now overdue – about 65% of the 200,000 seafarers worldwide.
Even if the 200,000 to be on the low side, the Philippines has a disproportionate share of overdue seafarers; meaning, it is worse in repatriating its seafarers than most other labor-supplying countries.
Why and what can be done?
In the Philippines context, seafarers are only part of the problem with the estimated 10 million land-based Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) badly affected by the economic impact of the pandemic.
Labor Secretary Silvestre Belo III estimated that around 350,000 OFWs had been affected, of whom around 200,000 had opted to stay in their host country. This would bring the total (seafarers and land-based workers) in need of repatriation to about 280,000 … and rising.
The beginning of the outbreak was a rough; by March 16th, the country went into total lockdown and all local and domestic transport was suspended. With thousands of arrivals per month and nowhere to go, the system would be overloaded.
The Administration managed to get up and running over a hundred quarantine facilities and after shockloading the system. The testing capacity was able to catch up. It was messy but it worked. But there it stopped.
Seafarers were not declared ‘essential workers’ and had difficulty to travel even locally in the Metro Manila area. Consequently, about 26,000 seafarers and OFWs got stranded in Manila after completing their 14-day quarantine, often transferring to temporary accommodation characteristics of a COVID-19 incubator.
The Administration allowed about 8,400 Locally Stranded Individuals (LSI) to travel to the province. These LSIs living in close quarters in government facilities posed a much bigger risk than seafarers and were allowed to obtain clearance after Rapid Antibody Testing instead of RT-PCR testing (requirement for returning seafarers). Hopefully this pragmatic risk based approach will be considered to returning seafarers in future. Antibody Rapid testing or Antigen testing would allow to isolate positive cases on the spot and allow others to go home where their cases can be managed locally through local testing and/or home quarantine.
Over 20 cruise ships were waiting at the Manila Bay to offload another 8,000 Filipino crew members. At substantial costs, ship owners brought home their Filipino workers --- only to get stranded in Manila Bay. Many of those ships had been at sea for more than 14 days.
Common sense would have it that the crew onboard had already completed the mandatory quarantine upon arrival. The Philippines made it very difficult by insisting on a new 14-day quarantine and re-testing.
Rules over rules.
Local manning agencies (LMAs) had great difficulty to keep up with the flood of directives, guidelines, circulars and other instructions produced by various agencies.
Add local government units (LGUs) with their own rules and interpretations and you find yourself in a daily changing landscape of sometimes contradicting rules.
As a witticism goes, “It’s hard to get organized if the goalposts get moved all the time.”
Everyone in-charge seemed to be hiding behind overriding regulations. Compliance seemed to be the ultimate goal. With everyone obsessed with compliance rather than solutions, stranded seafarers and OFWs continued to grow.
On May 3, airports were closed for incoming international flights for a week for a breather and to prepare the system for bigger things to come. But opened on May-11, a maximum of only 400 passengers arrivals per day was placed “until further notice.”
That is only about one and a half wide body passenger plane per day.
Decision paralysis continued until the May 24 cabinet meeting when Pres. Rodrigo R. Duterte had it with the excuses and bawled “Enough is enough” and ordered government agencies a week to sort out the mess.
The next morning, over a hundred buses and several planes were lined up for those stranded and tested, ready to transport them home. In spite of the chaos, it worked remarkably well as 16,000 people were repatriated to the provinces.
Again, "It shows what can be made possible when we think in solutions instead of compliance."
The maximum 400 per day arrival quota remained, a mystery even to airlines kept in the dark. Flights got cancelled at a moment’s notice when clearance from the Inter-Agency Task Force (IATF) was not forthcoming. Seafarers got stranded in Incheon, Doha and Hong Kong, after finding out mid-air connecting flight to Manila was cancelled.
It appears the Philippines is the only country that has put restrictions on their own nationals and residents returning. Basically, this is telling your own citizens ‘we cannot have you for now’. On the flipside, the Philippines is also the only country having to deal with a such a high number of returning nationals.
(Mr. Mes accepts Australia is worst by capping arrivals at NSWales at 50 people per flight, 350 allowed per day, as pointed out by Hubert van Mierlo of Groovy Train.)
Plus & minus.
The Civil Aviation Authority of the Philippines (CAAP) increased capacity at NAIA to 3,000 passengers per day; Cebu and Clark to receive 1,500 passengers per day. These will not make a real dent in the backlog, but a start.
Consider part of the increase will be absorbed by Filipino nationals allowed non-essential travel, by foreign residents with migrant visas. Great news for them but not for the stranded seafarers and OFWs abroad.
On June 19th, MARINA Administrator Robert Empedrad announced the Philippines as a crew change hub in the region --- ships would call international ports like Subic, Cebu and Davao just to change their crew --- with Filipinos and foreigners, green lanes, no restrictions in and out. It seems a no-brainer to open multiple gateways in the Philippines where ships could do their crew changes. Subic is a deep water port, vacant accommodation, the national Red Cross and a nearby international airport (Clark) could take some pressure off Manila.
But hope was short-lived, "With the number of Covid cases on the rise the crew change hub plan seemed to have succumbed to the effects of Covid." India snatched the role.
Early July, the Philippines was the first country in Asia to establish so-called ‘green lanes’, in line with recommendations from the IMO. Foreign Affairs Sec. Teodoro Locsin Jr. twitted, “This is landmark in every sense and it encompasses the protection and facilitation of all seafarers of all nationalities…”
Great words but the ‘green lane concept’ has not progressed beyond a separate lane at the airport granting seafarers unrestricted local travel rights. Normally, the concept is a designated safe corridor for seafarers from ship to home, and vice versa – the lane into the Philippines remains very narrow with the quota in place.
In countries like the Netherlands, shipowners and their association (KVNR) sat down with government, industry stake holders and the national airline KLM managed to establish a gateway for seafarers to get back to Manila.
Once the ECQ was lifted, the Dutch Embassy in Manila ramped up its visa section within weeks to get seafarers on their way. Dutch frontline workers in ports, busses and airplanes went out of their way to make this possible, only to be stopped short by self-imposed restrictions in the Philippines.
Despite, the port of Rotterdam and the Netherlands remain at the top as far as crewchanges affected in May according to ICS data.
Due to uncertainties of shareholders, a perception crept: "Based on previous experiences I fear this pact will not be the game-changer its signatories claim it to be, unless the signatories change their game first."
How we compare.
If the number of protocols and procedures and the industries attempt to deal and comply with it all is the measure then we have been doing quite well. But on how many seafarers and other OFW’s we have been able to bring home in a safe and controlled way, we have not been doing that well at all.
One of the first and only action of POEA was to pass on liability and quarantine costs for returning seafarers to the LMAs and Shipowners, even if the same costs for returning land-based OFWs are all covered by the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (OWWA).
Puzzling logic: costs for land-based OFWs, OWWA pays for but not for seafarers. Shipowners and managers went out of their way to bring Filipino Seafarers home, chartered planes, diverted ships at substantial costs. NOW, they also have to pay for government-mandated local prevention measures even though they contribute in the OWWA Welfare fund.
Luckily, the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) and the MARINA pitched-in what they could. But as long as the compliance and liability thinking remains in control, all those plans will be regulated into oblivion.
The Administration deserves support but it should also step up to the plate and dare to challenge the status quo. Limit your risk and liabilities or be bold and stick out your neck for solutions? Here are choices which might do both.
- There will be no game changers until those in charge change their game. Think solutions instead of liabilities. When The President barked “enough is enough,” busses and planes appeared overnight. It was not pretty nor sanctioned in protocols but it worked.
- Look at seafarers with risk assessment. How likely will they return with COVID-19? Of the first 31,000 returning OFW’s tested in May, only 465 tested positive. That is 1.5%. Analyze the data which may reveal majority of those who tested positive land-based, simply because they were more exposed (unlike seafarers on board who are basically in constant home quarantine. They only leave their home quarantine when they are transported to the airport and arrive in Manila hours later. There is always a risk they contract the virus while traveling, but it is just not very likely.)
Why not experiment with rapid testing and only swab test those who have positive results? Allow the others to proceed home and have their cases managed locally.
- Give seafarers priority and expand their quota, now that they are recognized as essential workers with designated green lanes. Nothing will improve unless quota restrictions are addressed. One can dream about international airlines starting up but this is an illusion due to the uncertainty of getting flights approved. Not many airlines will be willing to fly empty to Manila.
- Have another serious look at other ports as crew change hubs, as suggested by MARINA. Spread the load, the risk. Are local LGU’s playing hide and seek? Enough is enough, give them the resources to deal with it.
- Overseas governments have a role to play in allowing more crew changes in their ports. Luckily, more ports are opening up. But there has been a fair share of hiding behind rules and posturing as well, most prominently with the issue of visas. What do the statistics say about Filipino seafarers? Are they a security risk, are they being trafficked or overstaying?
The statistics will favour the Filipino Seafarer. Suspend visa requirements temporarily or issue a visa on arrival for seafarers traveling to and from ships? Bold solution-based thinking is what we need.
- Follow through with the Crew Change Pact. Create corridors free of restrictions by visa, port & border requirements and quarantine restrictions for crew changes.
The coming weeks will be crucial in deciding which path the Philippines will be taking. Inaction and posturing will inevitably lead to damage to its leading position in the crewing field. Other countries will pick up the slack. In part, this is already happening.
If principals and managers you cannot get crew replacement from the Philippines – because the crew cannot make it to Manila or flights get cancelled constantly – they will seek replacements elsewhere. Lost ground will be hard to regain.
* Mr. Joost Mes is a Director at Avior Marine, President of the Dutch Chamber of Commerce in the Philippines, former Chairman of Foreign Shipowners Employers Association-Indonesia. Views editorialized were published in July 20 and August 2, 2020.