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The ITF HQ in London

The ITF HQ in London

White List déjà vu,  By Andrew Guest 

It’s over a decade since a global federation of transport unions showed how easy it was to obtain a Panamanian certificate of competency. 

In 2001 David Cockroft, General Secretary of the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF), a man with no seafaring experience, bought a Chief Officer’s licence for USD 4, 500 from the Central American country’s consulate in Manila. 

Twelve years later, albeit in a rather more sophisticated way, Panama has again had its failings exposed after British accident investigators discovered the Turkish Chief Officer (and his post-accident replacement) on a small containership that grounded last year held genuine but fraudulently obtained certificates of competency (CoCs) issued by the same country.

Subsequent inquiries revealed a scam operated by some employees of the Panama Maritime Authority (PMA) working in collusion with unspecified training centres in Panama and fraudulent training organisations in Turkey to provide genuine Panamanian certificates. These in turn were accepted and endorsed by the ship’s flag-state, Antigua and Barbuda.

The now ex-Chief Officer had been certified by Turkey to hold independent watches only on ships of less than 500 gross tons (the containership was of 3, 125 GT) but had still been able to acquire a Panamanian Chief Mate’s unlimited certificate.

The officer and his replacement had both taken online examinations at unauthorised test centres in Turkey to obtain their Panamanian Chief Officer licences, according to the report published last month by the UK’s Marine Accident Investigation Branch (MAIB).

The 1991-built Coastal Isle, sailing from Belfast to the Scottish port of Greenock, grounded on the Isle of Bute in the early hours of July 2 last year with nobody on the bridge. The officer had earlier dismissed the lookout and then left the bridge almost two hours before the grounding. He claimed to have suffered stomach cramps and had gone to use the toilet in his cabin (rather than one nearer the bridge) where he is believed to have fallen asleep.

The discovery of the fraudulent certificates prompted the investigators to comment in the report: “It is extremely disturbing that inadequately qualified and inexperienced seafarers were able to function in senior roles without this having been identified during initial recruitment, port or flag state inspections, as well as internal and external international safety management system audits.”

The Turkish officer was later found guilty of failing to safely navigate his ship and was fined GBP 5, 000. He also had his Panamanian CoC revoked and, rather than being fired, was demoted by the ship owner to the position of Ordinary Seaman.

Whether the two seafarers knew they were involved in a fraud is not clear. The MAIB says it could not confirm if either was aware of “the fraudulent nature of the training and assessment centres in Turkey and the Republic of Panama that helped them obtain their Panamanian CoCs”.

The PMA initially blamed an administrative error but later told the MAIB it had been the victim of a scam. It says it has since tightened up its procedures for issuing CoCs and taken legal action against the employees involved.

The MAIB report describes the CoC fraud as “sophisticated” and “extremely difficult to detect” but adds, “It is alarming that the PMA, responsible for the administration of 21% of the world’s tonnage, was not aware that its employees were actively indulging in fraudulent [certification] activities”.

A report (Global Regulation of Seafarer Certification) in 2005 by the Seafarers International Research Centre claimed CoCs were given “minimum scrutiny” by flags, employers and colleges. The sheer volume – thousands a month – of applications for CoC endorsements can outstrip flags’ resources.

Checking can be done through online national seafarer databases via links on the International Maritime Organization (IMO) website, but out of 170 IMO members only 36 (including both Panama and Turkey) are available.

Under the 2010 Manila Amendments to the Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping Convention (STCW) all IMO members should have online databases by January 2017. Flags are also urged to improve measures to prevent CoC fraud.

The IMO also tries to quantify the problem of fraudulent certificates but in 2009, while it received 350 reported cases, only six countries (Belize, Bolivia, Hong Kong-China, Panama, St. Vincent & Grenadines and Singapore) appear to have been involved.

It is more than likely that Panama, after being alerted by the MAIB, has uncovered more fraudulently obtained CoCs and revoked them. In the current state of markets with seafarers in over-supply, ship owners faced with the sudden need to find replacements may not have a problem – as long as they or their manning agents double-check the new recruits’ paperwork is bona fide.

Checking the paperwork is also about to get more demanding as the Manila Amendments are phased in. New competencies, more frequent revalidations and refresher courses have to be acquired or taken and, of course, properly documented.

It is not only seafarers and employers who are chasing deadlines and ticking a seemingly ever-growing list of boxes. To maintain their places on the IMO’s White List of STCW-compliant members, countries have to satisfy the UN agency they have fully implemented the Manila Amendments and have to get all their paperwork in by next month.

Panama will no doubt be hoping the CoC fraud will not affect its chances of White List inclusion. Another country for which White List status is critical is The Philippines, the biggest supplier of manpower to shipping.

The Philippines is also waiting on approval of its training and certification system by the European Union (EU). Its training colleges face an audit by the EU’s European Maritime Safety Agency in October. Failure to pass could jeopardise the jobs of some of the 80, 000 Filipinos working on EU-flag ships. Attempts to force colleges to phase out courses deemed substandard are, however, encountering legal challenges.

Shipping needs both Panama and The Philippines on the White List (Manila version) and no doubt hopes that the CoC fraud in the former and the pressure from the EU audit in the latter will mean lessons have, finally, been learned.

 Note: Andrew Guest is a freelance journalist.

Feature articles written by outside contributors do not necessarily reflect the views or policy of BIMCO.

(source:BIMCO – dd:12.06.13)

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