Protecting our seafarers

Our seafarers are known worldwide — they were number one for decades until recently when China’s merchant ships grew in number and Chinese seafarers became the most numerous.

Out of 1,500,000 seafarers worldwide, 400,000 are Filipinos of which around 120,000 are non-marine seafarers working in cruise ships — a.k.a. floating hotels. In 2017 the number increased to 420,000 mainly due to more seafarers working in the cruise ships.

But unemployment is severe in the Philippines — for every two seafarers employed there is at least one more seafarer who is awaiting placement in ships, including the 25,000 new graduates in maritime schools annually. Add to that the number of job-seekers in the hotel and restaurant and entertainment industries who are also employable to man the cruise ships.

Seafarers have to borrow money for placement fees which are actually illegal, but disguised as fictitious cash advance vouchers forced on applicants by unscrupulous manning agencies.

There are numerous other ways with which seafarers and new graduates are milked such as through training charges and OJT tuition fees. On the other hand wages for Filipino seafarers are based on the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA) contract levels and are way below that of International Labor Organization (ILO) and International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) standards.

In cruise ships, basic wages are as low as S200 per month under the pretext that staff will earn from tips on board. There is even a plan to create separate POEA Contract for cruise ships that will diminish further the rights of non-marine crew to make them more marketable as a commodity.

The ILO considers seafaring the second most dangerous occupation, second only after fishing. I was in the waiting lounge in Istanbul just last night waiting for my flight to Manila with a seafarer who is being sent home without his hand because of an accident aboard the ship. Benefits and medical attention required for victims of accidents, illness or even death is watered down and the POEA contract strictly requires that these be work related and sustained during the actual work.

The POEA also prohibits seafarers from filing suits abroad and forces the National Labor Relations Commission and National Conciliation and Mediation Board as the prescribed forum for any claim. If the seafarer receives any partial or small settlement, then he can no longer sue here or abroad for negligence and tort. Medical benefits are only given to work related injuries or illness. Even the Associated Marine Officers’ and Seamen’s Union of the Philippines (AMOSUP) union hospital benefits expire three months after the seafarer finishes his work on board a ship covered with an AMOSUP contract.

The passage of a Magna Carta for Filipino Seafarers is meant to implement the ILO Maritime Labor Convention (MLC) 2006 and the other ILO Conventions and is a welcome development for the seafarers. The existing versions of the House of Representatives, House Bill 5685 and the Senate Bill 314 and the Proposed Amendments of the Maritime Industry Tripartite Council (MITC), reflect many of the major rights enshrined in the ILO Convention.

These versions have ample protection for Cadets and Trainees and for seafarers who are abandoned or in need of immediate repatriation. They also have satisfactory provisions on the right to organize and bargain collectively, the right to information and the right to have free legal counsel and to consultation.

However, the absence of more specific standards is glaring like adequate shore leaves or proper accommodation facilities. The most glaring problem however is in the diminution of provision on financial security for the consequences of illness, injury or death of seafarers.

The ILO MLC 2006 Regulation 4.2 requires shipowners to provide ample financial security to compensate seafarers for all the financial consequences of sickness, injury or death occurring while they are serving under a seafarer’s employment agreement or arising from their employment under such agreement.

The Senate Version of Section 36 has no such provision, and the House Bill limits the liability of shipowners to expenses for medical attention and not to all the financial consequences of the said events, including compensation for disability or death.

The ILO MLC 2006 does not limit the compensability to occupational illness or work-related injury but covers all incidents occurring while the seafarer is under contract. It also covers those incidents arising from the said agreement even after the contract has expired. Inclusion of the ILO MLC 2006 provision in the Magna Carta for Seafarers instead of the watered down proposals of the House and the MITC will ensure that this law will not be just another token gesture that will serve the shipowners and manning agency and not the Filipino seafarers and OFW.

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