Filipino seafarers to lose jobs as ‘ambulance chasers’ win

As posted by The Manila Times on May 24, 2023

A BLEAK future of unemployment for Filipino seafarers continues to worsen as shipowners and international maritime employers decided to “look elsewhere” to finally save themselves from millions of dollars worth of unfair monetary claims.

Recurring grievances from said employers have been aired for the past years due to the rampant ambulance chasing in the country where seafarers are urged by unscrupulous lawyers to pursue claims against their employers over questionable fit-to-work certifications.

According to lawyer Iris Baguilat, chairman of the Association of Licensed Manning Agencies (ALMA) Maritime Group, 23 percent or P2.576 billion of the total monetary awards issued by the National Conciliation and Mediation Board (NCMB) from 2018-2022 were deemed “erroneous.”

Most of this amount was never returned to the shipowners.

“I had expressed serious concerns even before the pandemic as more and more of my members had decided to look elsewhere given that it was practically impossible to win a case on merit…. No matter how strong the evidence, corrupt arbitrators often did not even hear the case and simply awarded in favor of claimants based on their lawyers’ submissions without even considering the employers’ response,” Francesco Gargiulo, chief executive officer of the International Maritime Employers’ Council Ltd. (IMEC), said.

Baguilat further reported that ambulance chasers would take more than 50 percent of the judgment award from the seafarer they urged to file the case. When the judgment is reversed, the obligation to return the award to the shipowner falls solely on the seafarer.

To ensure the return of the money awarded, the courts would go after the land, house, cars, cash and other assets of the claimant seafarer.

In April, the government assured to protect the Filipino seafarers from ambulance chasers through House Bill 7325, otherwise known as the “Magna Carta for Filipino Seafarers.”

Under Section 51 of the said House bill, or “Escrow as a Manner of Execution,” seafarers will be protected from lawyers who intend to extract unwarranted fees.

“Any monetary award by the arbitrator to the seafarer … shall be placed in escrow, if the employer or manning agency has raised or intends to raise the decision for judicial review in accordance with the Rules of the Court,” it said.

It specifically stated as well that “unpaid salaries, statutory benefits, or those legally determined by the shipowner or manning agency as legally owed to the seafarer will be paid out immediately to the seafarer even if the shipowner or manning agency appeals the decision.”

This particular provision to protect both the seafarer and his/her employer(s) was removed from Senate Bill 2221 or the “Act Providing for the Magna Carta for Filipino Seafarers.”

A loss to the manning industry

“This escrow provision, without doubt, is a win-win formula in favor of both seafarers and the manning industry in contrast to what some groups claimed,” says Gaudencio Morales, a veteran ship captain and president of the Filipino Association for Mariners’ Employment Inc. (FAME).

“They forget that, without foreign employers, there will be no Filipino seafarers on board the international fleets. … When even one employer leaves the country to search for the crew in other countries, Filipino seafarers lose their jobs. It is also a loss to the manning industry. So those who caused employers to leave the country are doing a disservice to the seafaring industry and the country,” Morales said in a separate article for a local publication.

He added that the repercussion will be greatly felt by the country’s economy to which the seagoing workers’ remittance have greatly contributed for the past decades.

“Some shipowners have already expressed their intention to shift to other nations like India and Africa if ambulance chasing will not stop or if the escrow provision is prevented to be included in the magna carta,” he said.

The Filipinos’ market share on merchant ships has steeply declined from 45 percent in 1995 to 14 percent in 2015 to 2021.