Despite the Risks, Filipino Seafarers Toil in the World’s Oceans
by ALECKS P. PABICO
MOST OF THE 2,100 passengers of the luxury cruise ship SS Norway were probably still asleep when it docked in Miami in the wee hours of the morning of May 25, after a week-long cruise in the Caribbean.
But Ricardo Rosal, newly promoted as the famed cruise ship’s third engineer, was already at work, along with the rest of the crew. The first Filipino to be elevated to that rank in the Norway, Rosal, 51, had toiled for years as one of the ship’s boiler-room stokers. His rise in rank had meant a salary that was almost twice his $500-monthly wage.
Rosal was with the stokers when the boiler suddenly exploded that morning, waking many of the passengers. He and three other crew members were killed instantly, their bodies charred by the violent rush of high-pressure, superheated steam. No passenger was hurt, but several other crew members were seriously injured, with four more dying days later.
Today, almost two months later, Rosal’s wife, Maria Gracia, has yet to accept the fact that the father of her three children is dead. But seasoned seafarers just grit their teeth, knowing that the shipping industry is among the most dangerous in the world.
Despite a safety-conscious regime instituted over the years by the International Maritime Organization (IMO), maritime disasters such as that of SS Norway’s boiler room explosion continue to happen. The Philippines is the world’s top supplier of seafarers and one in every five seamen onboard international ocean-going vessels is Filipino. For this reason, the chances of having Filipinos among the casualties in any major maritime disaster are high.
In the SS Norway explosion, which is regarded as the most fatal cruise-ship accident in the United States in over a decade, seven of the eight who died were Filipinos, as were 14 of the injured, most of them suffering from burns.
Last month, four Filipino mariners also lost their lives in an explosion aboard the Maltese-flagged tanker Efxinos, off the coast of the United Arab Emirates, while two others were injured.
Yet such tragedies have not daunted Filipino seafarers, who are eager to work overseas. The domestic shipping industry certainly cannot absorb them, and it pays far lower than what they can earn abroad. The government is also encouraging the brawn drain, not least because seafarers remit back to the Philippines some $1 billion every year.
Unfortunately, Filipinos are losing their competitiveness in today’s demand-driven global labor market. In the last few years, international ships have begun recruiting more seafarers from China and Eastern Europe. According to industry insiders, these mariners are relatively at par with Filipinos in terms of skills, but accept lower wages.
“We’re just one of the many labor-supplying countries,” says Ramon Tionloc Jr. a center director at the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA). “In the 1980s, we used to experience double-digit growth rates in the deployment of sea-based workers. It has shrunk since then. We need to sustain our growth considering that the Chinese have been very strong in the last two years.”
Long before the advent of the country’s overseas labor program, ships sailing international waters already had Filipino seafarers onboard. Between 1975 and 1999, the seafaring work force increased eight times, credited largely to manning agencies that were able to market the skills of Filipino mariners.
There are some 500,000 registered Filipino seafarers but only 200,000 of them can find work onboard international ocean-going vessels at any one time. The growth in seafarer deployment has also plummeted in the last two years. Some studies say this could be an indication that the Philippine ship-manning industry may have already reached a plateau.
Most industry insiders agree that the government has been hard at work trying to stave off the decline. In the process, however, local seafarers are being asked to trade off some benefits so they would remain globally competitive.
The most recent POEA standard employment contract for seafarers onboard ocean-going vessels, which covers those deployed from June 2002 onwards, is seen by some seafarer groups as a sellout. Lawyer Edwin dela Cruz, president of the International Seafarers Action Center (ISAC), says the contract only shows that the government regards seafarers as a commodity “whose entitlements need to be diminished so they can be marketable.”
Under the old contract, deaths or injuries need only to occur during the seafarer’s employment, which begins at the time of his or her departure from the airport or seaport in the point of hire and ends upon his or her return to the said port when the contract ends. As long as this was the case, few employers would even bother to ask about the circumstances of deaths or injuries. Claim payments were automatically remitted in two to three months.
Today the burden of proving that a death or injury is work related has been shifted to seafarers, who are at a disadvantage as they and their families do not have access to documents to prove their claims. Giehrjem Puracan, a lawyer pursuing seafarers’ claims, says, “The records are, in most cases, in the hands of the ship owners.”
The shift, others say, comes even as the shipping industry remains fraught with health and safety risks. Medical studies show evidence of an increased risk of mortality among seafarers, with ordinary crew members having higher mortality than officers.
The Research Unit of Maritime Medicine in Denmark, for instance, says the risk of cancer is high. Among those working in the engine room, the hazards include the presence of asbestos, mineral oils, polyaromatic hydrocarbons, organic solvents and exhaust gases. Crews on tankers are also exposed to airborne carcinogens like benzene and organic solvents that affect the nervous system. Other research, meanwhile, suggests an increased risk of cardiovascular diseases among seafarers.
From November 1998 to 2001, the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF)-Philippines recorded 367 casualties among Filipino seafarers, 66 percent of whom fell ill or met accidents, with 34 percent dying as a result of sunk ships, explosions and other mishaps. By the time it closed its Manila office in 2002, cases had almost doubled.
Since last September, the newly formed ISAC has received 140 seafarers’ complaints, half of which concern deaths, sicknesses and injuries.
But because of the POEA contract’s “work-related” clause as applied to claiming benefits for deaths, illnesses and injuries, dela Cruz says the claims process has become more litigious, allowing employers to question how the seafarers’ misfortunes are related to their work. He remarks, “It’s become a lawyer’s paradise.”
Puracan, for his part, says that beginning this year, the tack of manning agencies, which supply ships with crew, has been to argue the non-work-related circumstances surrounding the death, sickness or injury of seafarers.
This time, too, when the seafarers’ claims get approved at the arbiter level of the National Labor Relations Commission (NLRC), employers are no longer as ready to offer a settlement, but are more inclined to bring the cases up to the Commission level, and even all the way to the Court of Appeals.
According to the POEA, though, what manning agencies are actually contesting are accident-related deaths and injuries resulting from illnesses, particularly pre-existing conditions that seafarers knowingly conceal. This is also a new feature of the POEA contract, and one that could not only disqualify seafarers from any compensation and benefits, but can even be a valid ground for termination.
“They are asking why they should be made liable for, say a cancer or diabetes case, which cannot happen in a month after a crew member goes on board,” says Tionloc who notes the prevalence in the past of sickness and disability cases entertained by the P&I (Protection and Indemnity) clubs that facilitate payments of claims from ship owners.
Ship engineer Nelson Ramirez, who is also president of the United Filipino Seafarers (UFS), says the legitimate claims far outnumber those that are not. But he also admits that there are cases filed by “professional complainants” dictated upon by “ambulance chasers.”
“There are really those who take advantage,” says Ramirez. “You choke while eating on the ship — is that work-related?”
“Any death, any injury is unfortunate,” says Doris Magsaysay-Ho, chief executive officer of the Magsaysay Maritime Corporation, one of the country’s largest manning agencies. “But it has to be accident-related. Yet what we have is a lot of deaths that comes from sickness. So how can you now be sure that a case is an accident-related or a health-related injury or death if somebody died of heart attack?”
That would have been the function of medical examinations, if administered strictly and extensively. Magsaysay-Ho concedes, however, that not every manning agency adopts these because some of the tests are very expensive. Some of the agencies therefore resort only to basic health examinations that are unable to detect pre-existing illnesses.
So, Capt. Rolando Cervantes asks, why penalize the seafarers who submit dutifully to any examination conducted by company-designated physicians? Cervantes argues further that the same doctors would not allow them to board a ship if they are medically unfit.
If Cervantes sounds bitter, it may be because he has yet to receive a sickness allowance after being diagnosed with hypertension and sent home in April. Under the POEA contract, hypertension is compensated only if it impairs the functions of major body organs. The 48-year-old grumbles, “It seems I have to either get well first or become disabled before I get anything.”
The casualties in the SS Norway tragedy did not face such disputes. The injured Filipino crew who came from Magsaysay were covered by a collective bargaining agreement, entitling them to benefits of as much as $60,000.
Under the POEA contract, however, death benefits are pegged at $50,000 plus $7,000 for each minor child, not exceeding four in total. But the Filipino seafarers who were killed on the SS Norway are entitled to more. The six fatalities from the manning agency C.F. Sharp Crew Management were also covered by a collective agreement of the ITF, ensuring $60,000 for each family, plus $15,000 for each dependent not older than 21 years but not exceeding four per family.
The Norwegian Cruise Lines (NCL), which operates SS Norway, was also willing to give each family $3,000 as funeral and burial allowance, instead of the $1,000 stipulated in the POEA contract, says C.F. Sharp assistant manager Aurita Milanco. The manning agency, however, decided to stick to just the regular burial allowance. This, says Milanco, was to avoid legal complications after a U.S. lawyer filed damage claims of over $10 billion in compensation against NCL in Miami, Florida, on behalf of the accident’s survivors and the families of those who died.
Another controversial amendment in the POEA contract says that once seafarers or their families claim death and disability benefits, they can no longer file damages for negligence or tort cases against a foreign ship. Seen by some as another concession to the ship owners, the stipulation runs contrary to the International Labor Organization (ILO)’s model receipt and release form for contractual claims which provides for the right of seafarers’ legal heirs or dependents to pursue tort and damage claims.
And while the stipulated compensation are very generous by local standards, they pale in comparison to those enjoyed by seafarers employed in, say, German vessels, who can get as much as $125,000 (crew members) and $250,000 (officers) in death benefits. Lawyer Puracan also argues, “Why limit the value of human life to only $50,000? If at all, shouldn’t the government be the first to allow workers more opportunities to improve their lot?”
Magsaysay-Ho, though, says, “While we can’t put a cap on human life, unfortunately, there’s no magic number that says a life is worth this much. There’s none. That’s not the way it works. There has to be a sort of cap on an employers’ liability or else people will be scared to hire us.”
“When there’s merit for payment suffering, the owner is willing to offer it so that the families can start anew,” she adds. “It’s a matter of discussing it. When it’s discussed directly there are no commissions by anybody. There are no legal fees.”
UFS’s Ramirez also warns against “ambulance chasers,” or lawyers who dangle the prospects of huge sums of money in awards before their distressed clients. Says Ramirez: “More often than not, they just make the seamen hope in vain.”
Last October, the SS Norway lost a case filed by a Polish engine repairman who suffered a back injury for working on the ship’s leaking sprinkler pipes 20 hours a day for a week. He was awarded $705,000 by a Miami-Dade county jury, which also found the cruise ship unseaworthy.
At least two other cases involved local seafarers. In February 1997, cabin steward Wilfredo Delfin of the cruise ship Royal Odyssey (now the Norwegian Star) apparently died by drowning. But NCL officials reported his death as suicide, and withheld his death benefits. Delfin’s heirs sued and won $120,000 in damages.
The NCL was also sued for its alleged failure to provide for the medical treatment of a bar waitress who suffered psychotic disorder while on board the Norwegian Crown. A $10,000-claim for partial disability has been awarded at the arbiter level. It is on appeal at the NLRC.