European STCW recognition

Priority: European STCW recognition Philippines essential for Dutch shipowners

Dutch shipowners:

“Shortcomings in procedural obligations in the Philippines should not be at the expense of European recognition of the sailing competence of Filipino captains and officers.”

The European Union is expected to make a decision on the STCW recognition of the Philippines in spring 2023. This is the recognition based on which EU member states recognise the sailing qualifications of Filipino captains and officers.

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Without a valid certificate of competency, you are obviously not allowed to work as a captain or officer on board a seagoing vessel. This rule applies not only in the Netherlands, but all over the world. But what happens if you are working on a seagoing vessel that doesn’t fly the flag of your own country?

The shipping industry has a strong international character; this is reflected in its employment figures. Besides thousands of Dutch nationals, many people of other nationalities work in the Dutch shipping industry too. Some 1,700 Filipino captains and officers are currently active on the Dutch-flagged fleet, representing about 15.5% of the total number of captains and officers. Other important countries for captains and officers on Dutch-flagged vessels are the Netherlands (32.5%), Russia (22.5%) and Ukraine (12.5%) [source: Labour Market Monitor 2020]. Therefore, if a shipping company employs foreign seafarers on a Dutch-flagged vessel, it is important that the Netherlands recognise the sailing certificates issued abroad.

At the international level, the International Maritime Organization (IMO) has adopted the STCW Convention, which came into force in 1984. STCW stands for the International Convention on Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping for Seafarers. This convention sets worldwide standards for the training of seafarers and the issuance and recognition of certificates. The EU Directive 2022/993 on the minimum level of training of seafarers has transposed the STCW Convention into European Union regulations.

The challenge

European recognition of the certification of competency of Filipino captains and officers is currently under pressure. This is the result of concerns about the levels of supervision of the quality of maritime education and the issuance of certificates in the Philippines. However, this has nothing to do with how Filipino seafarers do their jobs on board ships. Indeed, there are no safety and/or environmental protection concerns as a result of Filipino captains and officers working in the Dutch fleet. On the contrary, it can be said that the Dutch fleet’s good scores during port state inspections are partly due to the commitment of the Filipino captains and officers involved.

The EU’s decision regarding STCW recognition of the Philippines lies with the EU member states and will be made on the basis of a proposal from the European Commission. That proposal will be based partly on findings from the European Maritime Safety Agency (EMSA) after several visits to the Philippines in recent years. This led to the EMSA raising concerns about the supervision of the quality of maritime education and the issuance of maritime certification. In response to these concerns, the Philippine government is working on reforms to systemic supervision. EU member states can adopt or reject the Commission’s proposal only by qualified majority.

In the unexpected event that recognition of the Philippines is withdrawn, this will apply to the whole European Union as member states may not deviate from this individually. In case of withdrawal of STCW recognition, the recognitions of individual certificates that have been already issued remain valid until the end of the term of that recognition. This is a maximum of five years, and the recognition of the certificate is valid only for the member state that issued it and is not transferable within the EU.

While the aforementioned transitional arrangement gives shipping companies leeway to avoid having to bid a definite farewell to their Filipino captains and officers, it no longer allows for promotions and employment as officers of trainees currently on board. Withdrawal of recognition will inevitably result in a shipping company having to end the employment of its Filipino captains and officers who have been with that shipping company for years and who are an essential part of that company’s quality and safety management processes.

If the EU were to decide to revoke the Philippines’ STCW recognition, this would create major problems for the European shipping sector. It is not possible to replace Filipino captains and officers with captains or officers from the Netherlands, the EU or from outside the EU, simply because they are not available on the labour market and cannot be trained in the short term.

Furthermore, due to developments in Russia and Ukraine, there is currently a very uncertain labour market for Russian and Ukrainian captains and officers. Withdrawal of the Philippines’ recognition will therefore lead to an outright crisis in the labour market for captains and officers of EU-flagged ships.

As a result of a withdrawal of European recognition, a substantial section of both the Dutch and European fleets will be affected. This may result in shipping companies with European-flagged vessels being forced to transfer to a non-EU flag. Then these ships can simply continue to be manned with Filipino captains and officers; business operations will not be jeopardised. Only then will cargo flows to and from and within Europe not be seriously disrupted. And only then there will be no supply chain problems and shortages/higher prices/inflation.

State of play - 10 January 2023

The European Union is expected to make a decision on the STCW recognition of the Philippines as early as spring 2023. This is the recognition based on which EU member states recognise the sailing qualifications of Filipino captains and officers.

The KVNR urges the Dutch government to take several factors into account when deciding on the Philippines’ STCW recognition and, in particular, to look at the efforts that have been and are being made in the Philippines in recent years to improve the supervision of nautical education and issuance of certificates. These developments should be given more time, also taking into account the inhibiting effect of the coronavirus pandemic in the past two to three years.

Without in any way deferring from the golden rule that regulations should be complied with, it can be said that the concerns expressed by the EC and EMSA are more about procedural aspects (lack of supervision) and do not originate from concrete concerns about on-board safety and environmental protection.

Moreover, the KVNR emphasises that shipping companies themselves also closely monitor the level of knowledge and skills (and experience) of Filipino captains and officers operating on ships. To this end, offices have been set up in the Philippines and intensive partnerships have been established with local crew agents. The cooperation between the Philippine nautical college Palompon Institute of Technology (PIT) and the KVNR, which has been ongoing since 2001, is another prime example of quality assurance from within the shipping industry itself.