Manning groups back seafarers’ Bill of Rights

As posted by The Manila Times on March 8, 2023

IN a rare move, local manning groups and former seafarers have joined hands in support of the proposed Bill of Rights of Filipino Seafarers, House Bill (HB) 7325, or the “Magna Carta for Filipino Seafarers,” which seeks to boost the competitiveness of Filipino sea-based workers.

Both the Filipino Association for Mariners Employment (FAME) and the Associated Licensed Manning Agencies (ALMA) believe that the enactment of HB 7325, which the House of Representatives passed on the third reading last Monday, March 6, by an overwhelming vote, will help restore the confidence of foreign employers in Filipino seafarers even as it seeks to protect the rights of Filipino seafarers.

Atty. Iris Baguilat and Cristina Garcia, chairman and president, respectively, of the ALMA group described the bill as “Congress’s attempt to save the dying Philippine seafaring industry” as indicated by the country’s shrinking share in the global market for seafarers over the years.

“The seafaring industry’s decline is evident in the decreasing market share of Filipino seafarers from 45 percent in 1995 to 14 percent in 2015-2021. The Department of Migrant Workers reports that only 16 percent of global seafarers are ratings and 12 percent are officers,” Baguilat, also president of Döhle Seafront Crewing (Manila) said.

She attributed this to mounting losses of employers of Filipino seafarers due to a provision in the Labor Code that ambulance-chasing layers were able to conveniently exploit in pursuit of their vested interest.

“Shipowners are quietly quitting the Philippines due to a legal loophole in the Labor Code of the Philippines which makes NCMB (National Conciliation and Mediation Board) and NLRC (National Labor relations Commission) decisions final and executory despite ongoing appeals.” Baguilat pointed out.

Rather than pursue further litigation, she said, shipowners often settle the claims at inflated rates to avoid a writ of execution which led to their significant losses.

These losses, when added to shipowners’ expenses, make Filipino seafarers more expensive, thus, less competitive than those from other labor-supplying countries.

The ALMA official said between 2018 and 2022 alone, a staggering total of P2.57 billion is owed to shipowners by seafarers because of earlier NLRC/NCMB decisions that were later reversed by higher courts.

This will soon stop with the enactment of the magna carta which provides for the creation of an escrow, a legal arrangement in which a third party temporarily holds the money until a higher court makes a final decision on the case. This will effectively check the illegal practice of ambulance chasing.

At the same time, however, the proposed magna carta, the local version of the Maritime Labor Convention 2006, provides ample protection to seafarers contrary to what some groups claimed.

Capt. Gaudencio Morales, president of the Integrated Seafarers of the Philippines (ISP), said Section 51 of HB 7325 guarantees a seafarer claimant or his heirs will fully enjoy the benefits provided under his contract. He said Section 51 of the bill explicitly states: “The amount [to be placed] in escrow shall not include claims for salaries, statutory monetary benefits, or those originally determined by the employer or manning agency to be legally due to the seafarer.”

Morales, a seafarer for 20 years, explained: “Only the contested amount beyond what is due them under the POEA (Philippine Overseas Employment Administration) contract should be held in escrow.”

The ISP president added, through the proposed escrow, seafarers will have immediate access to money which they can spend for their families’ needs while the contested portion of their claims is undergoing litigation.

“They no longer have to depend on the ‘cash assistance’ offered by ambulance chasers oftentimes with usurious interest rates,” he said.

Morales, also president of FAME further lauded the proposed magna carta for incorporating provisions on Reintegration Program for seafarers who are planning to retire from seafaring or who are forced to stop sailing due to various reasons.

For his part, Capt. Jin Salvatierra Jr., also an experienced ship captain with over 15 years of seagoing experience, noted that HB 7325’s provision on escrow is not anti-seafarers, but directed against ambulance chasing and their perpetrators. The escrow provision will prevent ambulance chasers from getting the lion’s share of the seafarers’ benefits guaranteed in their contract.

He said because of ambulance chasers, employers ditched their Filipino crew and replaced them with seafarers from countries where ambulance chasing is non-existent, resulting in job losses for many Filipino seafarers.

Salvatierra added that some employers had identified the illegal practice as the biggest threat to the country’s manning industry, bigger than the threat posed by the European Maritime Safety Agency (EMSA).

With the measure’s approval on the third reading, Baguilat, Morales and Salvatierra commended Kabayan Rep Ron. Salo, chairman of the House Committee on Overseas Workers Affairs; Marino Rep. Sandro Gonzalez; OFW Rep. Marissa “Del Mar” Magsino; AKO Bicol Rep. Elizaldy Co; and Pangasinan Rep. Ma. Rachel Arenas for standing firm on the escrow provision.”

We now have a bill that will suppress and ultimately eliminate the problem of ambulance chasers which sucks the life out of the seafarers and the seafaring industry,” Salvatierra said.