Seafaring: A “Pro-poor” Means of Empowering Liberian Youths

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The nine Liberian Seafarers are drawn from the list of fifty Seafarers (pictured) who underwent international seafarers training, sponsored by NaFAA and facilitated by experts from the Regional Maritime University in Ghana.

In observation of the UN Day of the Seafarers, 25 June 2020

Emmanuel Mezoh Dolakeh, M.Sc., B.Sc.

In commemoration of this year’s Day of the Seafarer with the global theme: “Seafarers are key workers: essential to shipping, essential to the world”, this revised article honors and celebrates seafarers globally and the few Liberian seafarers in particular while driving home the key message to increase Liberians on the many ships flying its flag. This Article was first published in the Liberia Maritime Authority’s Marine Monitor Magazine in 2018. #SeafarersAreKeyWorkers #ThankYouSeafarers

Introduction

Since the inception of the administration of President George Manneh Weah, Liberia has been inundated with various pro-poor messages. In the President’s first State of the Nation Address, he outlined four pillars for his Pro-poor Agenda:

  1. Power to the people;
  2. Economy and jobs;
  3. Sustaining the peace; and 
  4. Governance and transparency

He consummated his speech when he stood tall and boldly reworded the popular adage: “In the cause of the people, the struggle continues” with “in the cause of the people, the struggle must end”. If only these words are matched with real deeds, they would hopefully fall on fertile grounds. Without doubt, Liberians, for far too long, have languished in abject poverty while the enormous opportunities set aside for all Liberians have been enjoyed by a few. To effectuate “in the cause of the people, the struggle must end”, this Pro-poor Agenda should and must focus on impacting the locals through key sectors such as maritime, agriculture, extractive, manufacturing, etc.

Whereas these sectors are all extremely viable for the empowerment of the people through realistic pro-poor job creation mechanism, the maritime (“blue economy”) space could be innovatively explored to provide huge employment opportunities for many unemployed Liberian youths through maritime trade and commerce, harvesting or extraction of marine living and non-living resources, tourism, and harnessing marine energy.

According to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development’s (UNCTAD’s) 2019 Review of Maritime Transport, shipping represents over 80% of world trade by volume and more than 70% by value. It further accounts for 95,000 plus merchant ships which are manned by about 1.6 million seafarers. Shipping is a highly lucrative business of immeasurable international stature. Liberia has been no small player in this global shipping space since the official registration of the first ship – World Peace – under its open registry in 1949. In the same Report by UNCTAD, Liberia now sits third in the list of leading flags of registration by deadweight tonnage (dwt) with 3,496 vessels (243 million dwt), next to Marshall Islands with 3,537 vessels (245 million dwt) and Panama with 7,860 vessels (333 million dwt). Nevertheless, Liberia boasts of the highest growth rate in deadweight tonnage (7.98%) among the top three registries with Marshall Islands at 3.23% and Panama even at -0.57%. What this means is that Liberia is the fastest growing registry amongst the top three leading ship registries. So, no need to worry as the Liberian Registry is doing remarkably quite well.

Despite this remarkable feat by the Liberian Registry in such highly competitive international market, Liberians have benefited relatively little from the maritime program over its more than 70-years history, save the steady flow of revenues to the central budget and the training of a few Liberians in different maritime disciplines. The lack of a vibrant seafaring program is not only responsible for the little participation of Liberians in the maritime sector, it adds to the unemployment woes of the growing youthful population.

Seafaring, only when considered a cross-cutting target of the four developmental pillars under the CDC-led pro-poor government, could help lift the Liberian youths out of extreme poverty. In this context, the article attempts to answer three central questions: why seafaring in Liberia has failed; why is seafaring a unique pro-poor job creation sector; and how could this be rolled out? Before answering the questions, the national laws promoting Liberian seafaring would be outlined. 

Legal basis for creating seafaring jobs in Liberia

There are sufficient national laws pointing to the empowerment of Liberian seafarers. Like President Weah, who didn’t only challenge us all to study the Constitution (and supporting laws/regulations) but extensively made reference to it, the provisions supporting the empowerment of Liberian maritime labor force would now be cited.

The fundamental legal reliance for the economic empowerment of all Liberians can be found in Article 7 of Chapter II of the Constitution of the Republic of Liberia which guarantees “the maximum feasible participation of Liberian citizens under the conditions of equality, so as to advance the general welfare of the Liberian people and the economic development of Liberia”, of which the blue economy is of no exception.

Section 326 of the Liberia Maritime Law, which supports young age at sea (age 16 and above) to be employed on board Liberian-flagged vessels, provides enormous seagoing opportunities for the majority youthful population of the country.

Liberian Maritime Regulations (RLM-108), paragraph (1) of Section 2.40 on Costs of Marine Investigation, International Participation and Nautical Training establishes the collection of annual fees as follows:

“The costs of marine investigation, nautical training and international participation shall be defrayed by the annual payment of a fee of the prescribed amount by the owner of each vessel registered under the provisions of the Maritime Law of the Republic of Liberia.”

Paragraph (2c) of the same Section further clarifies that:

“An amount computed at the prescribed rate shall be placed in a trust fund administered by the Commissioner of Maritime Affairs (now the CEO/Commissioner of the Liberia Maritime Authority) and dedicated solely to covering the costs of nautical vocational training for seafaring personnel in support of the Liberian maritime program.”

Paragraph (3) of the above Section even went further to credit and incentivize the owners of Liberian-flagged vessels when they hire “two or more Liberian nationals (seafarers) on board for an aggregate period of at least one year at the prescribed rate against payment of the fee established in paragraph (1)” above.

Furthermore, Section 5, Paragraph 8 of the Liberia Maritime Authority Act 2010 encourages the Authority to “expand and create maritime employment opportunities for Liberian seafarers”, including training and certification.

Despite the strong show of support from the law for a vibrant seafaring program, why are Liberians still largely absent on Liberian-flagged vessels, let alone foreign vessels?

The failing seafaring program of Liberia

While the Liberian Registry is an open registry that does not in any way restrict Liberian ship owners to hire Liberian seafarers, the local maritime laws/regulations, as outlined above, clearly encourage/support the recruitment, training and placement of Liberians on board the more than 3,000 Liberian-flagged vessels. While it is glaring that Liberian seafarers have been so much disadvantaged that some even flirt with the emotion/assertion that placement of local seafarers on board Liberian registered ships has been sold out to foreigners, the entitlement part that only Liberians should be on Liberian ships can easily be defeated under the doctrine of open registry which allows vessel owners to freely employ any nationality.

However, is there any subtle selfish game at play against the promotion and competitiveness of Liberian seafarers? From a surgical comprehension of paragraph (3), Section 2.40 of the Liberian Maritime Regulations, one would think that owners of Liberian-flagged vessels would want to lower their operating costs by employing trained Liberian seafarers, who obviously are cheaper than their Asian and Western counterparts. Whereas these shipowners may be willing to employ highly trained/competitive Liberian seafarers, the bitter truth is we as a people and country, whether wittingly or unwittingly, have failed over 70 years to lower the unemployment rate by strategically investing into a national seafaring program. Here are some reasons pointing out the failure to develop Liberian seafarers.

The lack of a quality and productive maritime education and training (MET) institutions in the country has been one of the key reasons for the low output of seafarers. Within the entire country, there is only one public maritime training institute supposedly intended/dedicated to producing seafarers. The Liberia Maritime Training Institute (LMTI), established since 1979, has done little in recent years to impact/boost local interest in seafaring. While LMTI before the civil conflict was deliberate and strived to produce and place on board some of Liberia’s finest seafarers to date, the post-war story is largely embarrassing. The intermittent operation of LMTI thereafter only added to the woes of the Liberian seafaring program. While LMTI can now boast of a modern, state-of-the-art facility, its focus has somewhat shifted from the strategic provision of nautical vocational training for seafarers (as stated in Section 2.40 of the Liberia Maritime Regulations) to its highly rated Associate Degree Program.

Tied to the problems affecting Liberian seafarers is also the lack of public awareness and an effective recruitment of cadets/students. For such a sector to be successful, Liberians must be aware. Public awareness and education of the maritime sector is crucial in a country where a good segment of the population is illiterate. Also, recruitment strategy, in time past, has been largely limited to high school graduates with excellent academic achievement, including prerequisite to be a Division 1 or 2 holder in WAEC/WASSCE. Considering the distant and hazardous job seafaring is, many academically excellent high school graduates may more likely prefer going to college and working ashore. According to the 2016 Manpower Report, issued every five years by the Baltic and International Maritime Council (BIMCO) and the International Chamber of Shipping (ICS), this unattractiveness of the seafaring industry to lure young talents, along with ageing workforce and lack of skills diversity, has led to the shortage of officers – with the industry needing almost 150,000 officers by 2025. Seafaring has been misconstrued by many policy makers to mean a job only for the academic achievers. Even an average 9th grader with the rightful learning and disciplined attitude could pass for an excellent seafarer. One does not need a Division 1 or 2 in WEAC/WASSCE to be a good rating – welder, able seaman, motorman/oiler, fitter, carpenter, or even a cook. The singular advantage a degree (in navigation or marine engineering) has is the holder could easily pass for an officer in a relatively short span of time as opposed to starting as a rating and patiently climbing the ladder to be officer. Hence, this misconception, which has beclouded the recruitment process from time immemorial, must be reexamined. Otherwise, seafaring will continue to be a fleeting reality for many Liberian youths wanting seagoing jobs on board the thousands of vessels flying their flag.

Another salient point is the difficulty involved with Liberian seafarers getting a Liberian Certificate of Competence (CoC), which is a license for officers on board Liberian-flagged vessels. Many other maritime nations (such as USA, Phillipines, Taiwan, etc.) have developed question-and-answer (Q&A) examination preparatory booklets which are sold to seafarers wanting to sit examinations for officers. Liberia is probably the only leading flag State not offering such service for its seafarers. As a result, the examination is so difficult that many candidates often fail. But interestingly, there is a remedy for nationals other than Liberians. The foreign seafarers opting for Liberian CoC are allowed to bring their certificates obtained from their home countries or elsewhere and exchange them for the equivalent Liberian certificates for a fee. Sadly, for Liberian seafarers, the very closed nature of the Liberian officer license exam hinders their dream of sailing as officers. The alternative to sit other countries’ officer license exams and later exchange it for an equivalent Liberian license, which is what many of the few privileged Liberian seafarers have done, does not resonate with many home-based Liberian seafarers as they cannot afford the travel and living costs associated with taking these foreign exams overseas.

The lack of placement of Liberian seafarers on board Liberian seagoing vessels has been also identified as a major obstacle to the promotion/marketing of Liberians. While the quality training of potential seafarers has been a challenge, more than two dozens have been trained at the Regional Maritime University (RMU) and LMTI but securing a sustainable seagoing contract has been a lingering illusion. Manning and crewing agencies/companies could assist to fill the gap. It is now a common practice for employment on board vessels to be contracted out to these manning and crewing management companies. According to a study published in 2016 by the German-Philippine Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Inc. (GPCCI) aimed at highlighting the “maritime industry’s significance and impact on the Philippine economy”, for example, Philippine, which is the largest supplier of ratings worldwide, had about 406 manning agencies in 2016. So, it is clear that in addition to producing quality seafarers, manning/crewing agencies or companies must be encouraged to open busines in Liberia so as to market Liberian seafarers.

Consequently, the abovementioned challenges are some reasons why Liberia and Liberians are bigly losing out on the immense benefits that accompany seagoing jobs.

The benefits of seafaring jobs

Jobbing on the world’s blue oceans can no doubt help provide young Liberians, particularly the vulnerable youths, not only with an opportunity to provide for their families but could be a lifeline that quickly lifts them out of the dark ocean of poverty.

Despite the isolated and physically/mentally demanding job seafaring is, there are enormous benefits associated with this industry, especially for a country like Liberia. From a personal experience at sea, also corroborated by other seafarers in a survey by Shiptalk Recruitment Ltd. in 2008, the following are but a few reasons why a job at sea is so motivating:

  • Exposure to world travel;
  • Attractive wages than similar jobs at home. As set in 2018 by the Subcommittee on Wages of Seafarers of the Joint Maritime Commission of the International Labour Organization (ILO), the minimum monthly basic wage for able seafarers (ratings) is US$625 as of 1 January 2020 and will increase by US$16 (to US$641) as of 1 January 2021. Imagine taking Liberian youths from high school and training them as competitive seafarers to earn a minimum monthly wage of US$625 as ratings and even more as officers! What shoreside pro-poor job can provide such minimum wage at a massive scale?
  • Working conditions are better than at home. Seafarers get three square meals daily in addition to regular supply of toiletries and discount on goods purchased on board;
  • Stability of job due to its international nature;
  • Less (extended) family pressure as absence on ground means less expenditure, which means one can save more.

Even after sea life, experienced seafarers, especially officers who are always in short supply, could be hired ashore as flag State surveyors, port State control inspectors, harbor pilots, harbormasters, superintendents, or shipping company managers, among others.

Besides the reduction of national unemployment as a result of seafaring job creation, the country also stands to benefit from remittances, which in turn would help drive the local economy. According to the GPCCI Study, 402,000 Filipino seafarers, for instance, remitted $5.5 billion to the Philippine economy between 2010 and 2014. Given the small size of the Liberian economy, remittances from even hundreds of Liberian seafarers could be quite impactful.

Recommendations on how to send more young Liberians to sea

To reap these and other benefits of seagoing jobs, a spectrum of decisions – from the sometimes simple and immediate to the often tough financially intensive and long-term ones – would have to be made as a government and people.

The inclusion of seagoing job creation into the CDC-led government’s pro-poor agenda would not only provide sustainable jobs for Liberian youths but directly enhance the four pro-poor pillars, particularly pillar two on economy and jobs. Therefore, to quickly and sustainably put a good trunk of our youths to work, consideration and a rigorous and consistent implementation of the below recommendations, say over a five-year period, would fundamentally change the negative/bias narratives/perceptions that have stifled/beclouded the growth and competitiveness of Liberian seafarers for years:

  1. Ensure that laws promoting the creation of a national seafaring program are scrupulously enforced. For instance, funds collected for nautical training must be directed to trainings that yield the possible maximum benefits for Liberian seafarers, with particular emphasis to produce more Liberian seafarers via a quality nautical vocational training as mentioned in the Liberia Maritime Regulations as opposed to the highly academic Associate Degree Program currently ongoing at LMTI.
  2. Promote and support LMTI, the lone maritime education and training (MET) institution in the country, with emphasis on producing competitive ratings and following through with upgrading courses to qualify them as officers. If more youths are to benefit, this would mean increasing the yearly intake of cadets. Also, 14 to 18 year-olds should be recruited and placed into LMTI’s Preparatory Academy where both regular high school and basic seamanship programs could be offered them. This recruitment of young cadets would enable them rapidly advance to officer ranks and qualify as young captains and chief engineers within ten years or so. 
  3. Public awareness and the right recruitment attitude to promote a career at sea. Organize and promote, through the office of Liberia’s International Maritime Organization (IMO) Goodwill Maritime Ambassador, programs/campaigns to attract young new talents to seafaring. The IMO Goodwill Maritime Ambassador scheme is an innovative way IMO encourages its Member States, through their nominated Ambassadors, “to promote the maritime and seafaring professions and raise awareness of the positive benefits of choosing a career at sea or other maritime profession”. For example, introduce primary/elementary school kids to ships and the ‘blue’ environment. Furthermore, engage/enthuse young Liberians throughout the year, particularly on the Day of the Seafarer, World Maritime Day or World Oceans Day.
  4. Provide exam preparatory manuals for officer’s Certificate of Competence (CoC). As done in other maritime countries, make readily available such Q&A preparatory materials for seafarers sitting Liberian officers’ examination. Together, this would not only increase the pool of professional Liberian seafarers as officers, but proceeds from the sale of the officers’ exam preparatory materials could help subsidize LMTI’s work.
  5. Pursue and arrange placement of Liberian seafarers on board Liberian registered vessels

As LMTI positions itself to produce growing numbers of talented Liberian cadets, the establishment and operation of a public or a private seafarer recruitment and placement service, in accordance with the requirements set out in MLC 2006, should be encouraged and supported. To buttress LMTI’s efforts, such recruitment and placement service, through a competent manning and crewing management agency, could be very vital, sustainable way of sending more Liberians to sea.

Conclusion

The problems with the creation of seafaring jobs in Liberia are numerous – from the messy education system to the lack of investment in the sector. However, this paper has outlined some of the problems hindering the promotion of seagoing career in the country as well as suggestive actions to remedy them.

As we celebrate seafarers everywhere every June as the “unsung heroes” of global seaborne trade, the benefits from Liberia’s enviable record in ship registry should trickle down to real and practical investment into the comprehensive development and production of Liberian seafarers. And what better sustainable pro-poor jobs could be created than jobbing at sea?

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