Labor problems arising from a missing plane

DIRECT FROM THE LABOR FRONT - Atty Josephus B. Jimenez - The Freeman

That missing Malaysian Airline plane reminds us of  the movie CASTAWAY, whereby a passionate FedEx systems analyst Chuck Noland, played by the celebrated actor Tom Hanks, was stranded for four years in an uninhabited island when his plane crashed somewhere in the South Pacific. Ironically, that flight was bound for Malaysia to which country Chuck was summoned to solve a company productivity problem. After surviving in the island for more than fifty months, Noland was picked by a passing vessel, then he returned to civilization and resumed his job, albeit he lost his beloved to another man. That story leads this column to examine the labor implications of any missing employee as a result of  any similar air or marine disaster. The issues that arise include whether or not employer-employee relationship could be deemed to have continued while Chuck Noland was stranded in that island. Or, was the employment deemed suspended all those years.

The first question would be whether Noland should be entitled to compensation in the duration of being castaway. He would perhaps argue that the accident happened when he was on official mission, as ordered by the FedEx management. Could he legally demand then for unpaid salaries and corresponding benefits for a period of four years or more? Could Noland argue before the labor tribunal that the unfortunate situation that befell upon him was a direct consequence of the specific instruction given by management? He was specifically commanded to proceed to Malaysia and perform an official function there. As such, if he was a Filipino, would Noland also validly claim entitlement to workmen's compensation for disease, disability and injuries suffered arising from that incident?

The company would argue, of course, that it could not be held liable for a fortuitous event or force majeure of which management had no control. The employer could argue that the disaster that befell on Noland was neither the result of a willful act of management nor of  the employer's negligence or lack of foresight or lack of  skills, Therefore management would refuse to pay wages on the basis of the well-settled principle of  NO WORK, NO PAY. For more than four years, Noland did not perform any productive task for the company, he was not under the direct control and supervision of the company. Thus, no wages or salary could be demanded by Noland. However, benefits for disability, disease or even death could perhaps be demanded. These should be paid by the State Insurance Fund, under the custody of the SSS.

When this writer was still the personnel director of Petron (then known as Petrophil) and PNOC, in the early eighties, we had a missing vessel,  (an oil tanker filled with crude oil from the Middle East) which was lost to pirates somewhere in the Strait of Malacca between Indonesia and Malaysia. All the 17 crew members including the captain went missing. Since no dead bodies were recovered, we could not just declare them dead right then and there. Under our company policy, we had to pay their full salaries to their wives and families for twelve months. After one year, we declared them judicially presumed dead, after proper proceedings, and thereafter paid their families the appropriate death benefits. Just after the families got the checks, all the 17 crew members reappeared and reported for work. My boss agreed to let them resume their job. But I told them in jest that they were not allowed to die again because they had already received their death benefits. Just to break the stressful situations.

And so, I could only imagine the very difficult situation currently being faced by the Malaysian Airline HR department. They must be very busy by now, communicating with the families of the captain and flight attendants. Also, they must have some employees on board while on vacation. It is really a very difficult task to be informing the employees' loved ones about death and disaster. I have done it a number of  times. And I didn't relish those uneasy moments. I would rather prefer the other HR tasks of facing a strike or demo, or negotiating a labor contracts, or appearing before labor arbiters, commissioners and Justices. Missing planes and oil tankers are very hard nuts to crack. I was there and I experienced them all. And they were ugly things to do.

Thus, I could only imagine that missing Malaysian plane must have made the HR life in that airline company very challenging these times. We could only pray that, like Chuck Noland, the passengers and crew are all stranded as castaways somewhere in the South China Sea, rather, in some of our shoals and islets in the Philippine Western waters. We are hoping for the best while the airline must be, by now, preparing for the worst. Sad.

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