By Bernie Cahiles-Magkilat
United Philippine Lines (UPL), one of the country’s leading ship management and manning agencies, is working with the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (OWWA) to provide transportation, temporary shelter and financial assistance to stranded seafarers as a result of the COVIC- 19 pandemic.
UPL Chief Operating Officer Denny Escobar told Manila Bulletin that they have written OWWA Administrator Hans Leo J. Cacdac, who together with the Inter Agency Task Force, lifted the ban on the operation of accommodation establishments in Metro Manila for seafarers.
“OWWA was able to help us out and ease the restrictions enabling us to partner with hotel operators to open and accommodate our seafarers rather than have them linger at the airport and street,” said Escobar, who said the partnership with hotels would initially cover their returning crew members on finished contract or those who have been sent back because of the “no crew change” policy.
Escobar said there have been problems with accommodations because even the dormitories for seafarers in Intramuros were already full if not closed to accepting walk-in guests. OWWA hostels were also filled up and most of the OFWs are staying there until the Luzon lockdown is lifted.
“So, we work with our clients and principals to provide aiport-hotel shuttle, accommodation and meals. We are advancing everything so they would have accommodation that are not that expensive and are provided with set meals,” he said.
There has been no estimate as to how many seafarer arrivals in a day in the country but for UPL alone, they average 10 return¬ing seafarers daily on finished contracts.
“I really would not know industry-wide but there could be more than a thousand this one month alone and we don’t know exactly where they are residing if Visayas and Mindanao so we have to double check,” he said.
On top of the returning seafarers, Escobar also noted that there have been some seafarers from the provinces but are in Manila either to process their documents and complete their medical re-quirements and are staying with friends and relatives but cannot go home because of the lockdown and are running out of money.
To help these seafarers, UPL has also set up a call center team and a communications group to assure their family members that they are being taken care of. Seafarers in the provinces can also call directly their crewing managers and processors so they can respond to their queries right away.
Escobar explained that a seafarer’s employment contract starts when they leave the airport and ends when they come back, “But for us this is an extraordinary time, and we have good relationships with our principals and we treat our seafarers as family.”
UPL has 35,000 seafarers on their database and half of that are onboard various ships from passenger cruise lines and commercial merchant ships such as tankers and cargoes.
UPL’s passenger cruise line business accounts for 80 percent of their total deployment and only 20 percent for commercial ships with foreign principals that they have in partnership with them for the past 35 years.
“The cruise industry is directly hit by the COVID-19 threat,” said Escobar.
“I foresee this is just the be¬ginning because the next issue is when will the cruise lines open again because we are just feeling the impact as some of our ships are forced not to operate,” he added noting that cruise ships maybe postponing operation up to a maximum of 90 days.
The cruise lines sector is more affected because one ship alone has 400 to 500 Filipino crew members, but a commercial ship or cargo and tanker ship has a maximum of 20 Filipino crew only.
He shared that during an international conference last year, there were 15 new cruise ships to be operational in the next five years. That should translate to thousands of additional employment.
But the commercial ships are in a better position after this pandemic. Escobar said there could even be more cargoes than usual because cargo movements have been delayed. Ifever there would be slowdown in deployment, Escobar said they would take this as an opportunity to provide additional training to their crew.
Escobar said they earlier projected a repeat of last year’s 10 percent growth in deployment because they have two additional new ships. But because of the crisis, he said, there could be ships on wet lay-up, meaning they are idle, or functioning on limited activity.
Established in May 1960 as a union of several shipping companies in the Philippines, UP put up a representative office in New York and initially operated a liner service of seven 12,500 DW T cargo vessels serving a trade route between the Philippines and the East and West Coasts of the United States via Hong Kong and Japan. Eventually, UPL expanded its operations and gained considerable expertise in the areas of general agency, husband¬ing agency, chartering and ship management as well as handling vessels such as oil tankers, LPG carriers, containers, car carriers, product carriers, supply vessels, ocean tugs, ocean barges, and bulk carriers.