The seafarers conundrum

EYES WIDE OPEN - Iris Gonzales - The Philippine Star

A  Filipino seafarer, John Marvin Aquino, 26 years old, has been missing since November 2022.

According to the family, they received a call on Nov. 8, 2022 from the manning agency that their loved one is missing. Aquino, together with other members of the crew, were passing through the seas between Reunion Island and Madagascar. He has not been heard of since.

The family has sought the help of the authorities but until now, the Aquinos continue to painfully wait for answers.

I learned about this story from Sophia Cinches, a letter sender doing missionary work for St. John Neumann Migrant Center and from the Facebook page the family created to bring attention to Aquino’s plight.

This unfortunate situation puts the spotlight on Filipino seafarers, which brings me to the Magna Carta of Filipino Seafarers.

The passage of the bill at the House of Representatives is a welcome development but as I said in a previous column, the controversial provision on the proposed escrow provision leaves questions begging for answers.

Essentially, this provision states that any monetary award for a sick or deceased seaman from the National Labor Relations Commission (NLRC) or the National Conciliation and Mediation Board (NCMB) will not be immediately available to the seaman winning the case.

Instead, the money will be placed in an escrow account while the case is on appeal.

As I wrote earlier, AMOR Seaman, a group of Filipino seafarers, said the escrow provision would put seafarers at a disadvantage and discourage them from filing claims for disability or death benefits because of the number of years they’ll have to wait before they can get their benefits.

However, after I wrote about this, one group, the International Group of P&I Clubs, claimed that as of September 2018, some $30.5 million is due back to shipowners as a  result of “reversed or favorably modified decisions of the NLRC and NCMB.”

IG P&I comprises 13 internationally recognized P&I Clubs which provide protection and indemnity liability cover for approximately 90 percent of the world’s ocean-going merchant shipping fleet.

Thus, it said, it strongly believes that the adoption of the escrow proposal provides a “balanced and equitable solution, one which accomplishes the need for satisfaction of the NLRC and NCMB’s decisions and would bring fairness to the dispute resolution process across all levels, including conciliation and mediation as strongly encouraged, whilst service the interests of all stakeholders in a positive manner.”

Ambulance chasers

It also said that seafarers “are being exploited by ambulance chasing lawyers, when encouraged to pursue claims for 100 percent compensation in every instance, often prematurely.”

I understand the position of employers and seafarers but then again, I argue that seafarers’ welfare should be the priority.

At the end of the day, the aggrieved party – in case of illness or death of a seafarer – is the seafarer himself and not the mammoth shipping companies which rake in billions.

Thus, the question still begs to be asked – how will a sick or an injured seaman – or perhaps in the case of the missing John Marvin Aquino – get indemnity for what happened to him while doing his work?

For sure, he cannot tell the hospital to postpone his medical bills while he gets a final decision from the Supreme Court on his case.

He needs to immediately address his illness or injury.

As AMOR Seaman said, because of the usually unreasonable length of the progress of these cases, seafarers cannot make a living while hearing the case for the precise reason that they are either ill or injured and usually no employer would hire them under their conditions.

“This escrow provision will make it so that disabled seafarers will be denied the full fruits that are due to them and they must wait for 10 to 15 years while reviewing courts resolve the appeals of their cases.

“The escrow provision is repugnant in that it unduly favors the manning agencies and their principals because it is worded in a way that the amounts that may be released to seafarers pending appeal is only what has been stated by the manning companies or what they believe is due the seafarer.

“It must be emphasized that the inclusion of the said escrow provision goes beyond the benevolent objective of the Magna Carta at the expense of curtailing seafarers’ rights,” it said.

The group also said that there is no relation to “unrestituted claims and the deployment of Filipino seafarers,” contrary to the claims of manning companies.

According to data from the Department of Migrant Workers, sea-based workers saw an increase in deployment to 385,239 in 2022 from 345,517 in 2021.

It also noted that 92 percent of decisions of the NLRC have been affirmed by the Court of Appeals as of 2022.

How do we solve this problem?

The Senate must look into the issues more extensively, including protecting aggrieved seafarers against abusive employers, manning agencies, insurance companies and yes, even the so-called ambulance chasers, before passing its version, but with the goal of putting into law a measure that will protect our Filipino seafarers.

Magna Carta

It may be timely to remind our lawmakers that Magna Carta was derived from the medieval latin term which stands for “Great Charter” of Freedoms.

Any provision that undermines this freedom, therefore, may also undermine the letter and spirit of any Magna Carta for any group.

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Email: [email protected]???????. Follow her on Twitter @eyesgonzales. Column archives at EyesWideOpen on FB.

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