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A sea of trouble

By Christian Cardiente | Sep. 10, 2011 at 12:05am
by Christian Cardiente and Karl Allan Barlaan

Manny worked as an “able seaman”, a job that requires heavy lifting. While at work in 2009, he lost his footing and sustained injuries to his back and shoulder. Unable to work for more than 120 days, he filed a claim for permanent disability. Litigation lasted nearly three years, during which Manuel had resorted to borrowing from loan sharks to provide for his family.

Just this year, the court awarded him roughly P400,000—a pittance not befitting his disability. The amount went to paying off debts and legal fees. Jobless since the accident, Manny will never work again – aboard a ship or elsewhere.

Augusto was in his mid-30s when in 2009, aboard a ship, he fell on his back and sustained a spine injury. He, too, filed a claim. He was later told by his agency that the foreign principal had wanted to settle. Four months into litigation, the agency admitted that it had not been authorized to negotiate on behalf of its foreign client. The case remains undecided to this day.

Without gainful employment, Augusto is unable to send his three children to school and seek medical attention for his injury. With virtually no resources to speak of, he will have to endure what insiders call “litigation fatigue”—often employed by “protection or indemnity clubs”—mutual-assistance insurance companies owned and operated by shippers, to force claimants to their knees.

Manny and Augusto are but two of multitudes of Filipino seafarer-victims, with cases of exploitation piling up alongside the country’s growing reputation as the world’s leading supplier of maritime workers.

With 347 thousand seafarers deployed around the globe in 2010, the Philippines has been touted as “the manning capital of the world,” providing at least 25 percent of the world’s seafarer requirement, estimated at 1.2 million.

State data show that seafarers comprise about a quarter of the 1.47 million overseas Filipino workers deployed last year. Of the $18.8 billion OFW remittances in 2010, 20 percent or $3.8 billion were from seafarers.

The amount is equal to P159.6 billion in local currency—enough to feed 2.73 million poor Filipino families of five for one whole year; or more than enough to finance the government’s multi-billion conditional cash transfer program while plugging the 150,000-unit classroom backlog at the same time.

Despite their substantial economic contribution, some maritime sectors feel they are being left out of the policy loop, obtaining inadequate protection and support against abuses by employers and government agencies.

Amid the recent spate of attacks by Somali pirates victimizing among others, Filipino crews, the International Seafarers Action Center (ISAC) contends that the long-standing use of Flag of Convenience is the biggest issue plaguing Filipino seafarers.

ISAC secretary general Joseph Entero explains that under the system of FOC, a vessel is registered in a state (flag of registry) different from the country of its beneficial owner.

“The purpose is to evade stringent laws in the country of the ship owners regarding labor cost and safety standards. An FOC ship would usually enjoy the benefit of cheap labor and substandard shipping,” he said.

The London-based International Transport Workers’ Federation claims that seafarers on FOC ships are often denied their basic human and trade union rights, and are usually subjected to very low wages, poor on-board conditions, inadequate food and drinking water, and extended periods of work.

“The home countries of the crew can do little to protect them because the rules that apply onboard are often those of the country of registration,” added the ITF.

Apart from contract violations, seafarers are also often exposed to greater health and safety risks. Worse, victims decry the litigation process for their claims as overly complicated, lengthy, and corrupt.

Though refusing to name individuals, a source told this paper that “corruption at the National Labor Relations Commission has gone from bad to worse.”

“Lagayan system is still in place...labor arbiters do favor a party for P20,000 to P100,000. The asking price is much higher at the NLRC Commission level in cases involving seafarers… usually from P100,000 to P500,000. In one case, the asking price was P1,500,000 for the reversal of a labor arbiter’s decision,” revealed the source.

Aside from “pabaon” to NLRC officials when they go on trips, the source claims that some labor arbiters are in the “payola” of certain manning agencies.

“They influence the outcome of the case. Even Commissioners would peddle influence by asking the labor arbiters or reviewers to decide the appeal as they please. It is not unusual that decisions are prepared by a party litigant, usually in exchange for a fee,” the source said.

In a statement last month, ISAC said that corruption within NLRC is “systemic” as “some labor arbiters and commissioners are asking for some “grease” in order for the cases to move “swiftly”.

NLRC chief Gerardo C. Nograles since replied that his agency has begun to streamline its procedures, remove red tape, and restore integrity and fairness, and put in place “a much strengthened arbitration and adjudication system.”

Supposed abuses, however, allegedly exist within the legal profession as well. An insider reveals that while the “going rate” for legal fees is 20 percent of whatever is awarded, “some lawyers, by themselves or with the help of ‘financiers,’ have been said to deduct as much as 60 percent—in payment for loans and other ‘legal fees’—from seafarer claims.”

Others are even said to “sign their address on complaint forms, receive court orders and updates themselves...negotiating fees without the authority of their clients.” Still, some “private consortiums” owned and operated by non-lawyers, illegally function as law offices—hiring lawyers only for legal chores but doing “direct business” with unsuspecting seafarer-clients, another source alleged.

Lawyer Marcelo Fernandez Jr., a leading labor law practitioner specializing in seafarer concerns, calls these practices unethical. “Complainants should always know what is happening with their case. As I have told my own clients, you always have to be involved in your case. Recognizing that the lawyer should take the lead on legal matters, it still doesn’t dispense with keeping the client informed,” said Fernandez.

A number of bills intended to boost seafarer welfare are currently pending before Congress. If enacted into law, they would cause the protection of seafarers’ rights such as access to educational advancement and training, humane conditions of work, just compensation, self-organization, and legal representation, among others.

This is in accordance with the Maritime Labor Convention of 2006 adopted by the International Labour Organization. The convention, however, has yet to be ratified, adopted, and implemented by countries including the Philippines.

The 2006 MLC “sets out seafarers’ rights to decent conditions of work on a wide range of subjects... designed to become the ‘fourth pillar’ of the international regulatory regime for quality shipping.”

“This international maritime labor instrument could be the key for stricter imposition of labor standards, healthy and safe working environment for the seafarers,” ISAC said in a statement.

Advocates of the 2006 MLC ratification see discouraging signs, though. Sources claim that President Benigno Aquino III, the sole authority to ratify the Convention, is not keen on its ratification, reportedly due to pressures from domestic ship owners and manning agencies wary of MLC’s possible impact on their bottom lines.

In a recent seafarer family convention, Labor Secretary Rosalinda Baldoz, reading the President’s statement, heaped praises on seafarers while reiterating the government’s commitment to its “22-Point Labor Policy Agenda,” “Labor and Employment Plan 2011-2016,” and “Philippine Development Plan 2011-2016.” She, however, was mum on the MLC’s ratification.

The recognition is present though corresponding action has yet to be seen. Conditions on local shores remain no better than those on foreign seas.
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