But first, protect seafarers | Inquirer Opinion

But first, protect seafarers

/ 05:15 AM July 07, 2023

A Supreme Court ruling in favor of a Filipino seaman’s disability claims after suffering work-related injuries augurs well for the welfare of nearly half a million seafarers from the Philippines working in passenger and cargo ships around the world. At the same time, the high court ruling was also a repudiation of the local labor agencies that failed seaman Loue Mutia and prolonged his quest for compensation for nine years.

Mutia suffered injuries while working as an assistant cook on Norwegian Jade, a Bahamas-flagged cruise ship owned by the Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings Inc. (NCL) in 2013. A trolley shifted while he was transferring 50 kilograms of chicken, forcing him to support the full weight of the meat with his body until he felt a snap on his back and fell on the floor. Later, he sustained an eye injury after accidentally dropping a kilo of chicken seasoning into a pot of boiling soup.

On July 9, 2014, Mutia sued for permanent total disability with the National Labor Relations Commission (NLRC) after becoming “incapacitated’’ for 120 days. He also sought moral and exemplary damages against the local agency that deployed him, C.F. Sharp, and the NCL which sent him home and stopped shouldering his medical expenses.

But his employers denied his claims on the ground that he did not declare an ear infection as a preexisting illness in his medical exam prior to his hiring. A labor arbiter initially granted his disability benefits and lawyer’s fees, but this was reversed by the NLRC in 2016. It said that all preexisting illnesses should be declared “with no exception’’ under the rules of the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration Standard Employment Contract (POEA-SEC). Mutia brought his case to the Court of Appeals (CA) which dismissed it in 2018.


It took the Supreme Court to render justice to Mutia, who took his case to the highest court. In a unanimous decision, the court’s second division ruled that a worker can claim disability benefits when the “concealed illness’’ has nothing to do with injuries suffered on the job.

“Following the CA’s interpretation of Section 20(E) of the 2010 POEA-SEC would lead to an absurd situation where seafarers are disadvantaged. The employers are absolved from liability arising from a work-related illness or injury even if they are negligent in their duties,” the Supreme Court said. It ordered the manning agency and the NCL to pay Mutia at least $100,000 in disability benefits. The court also reminded employers to ensure workers’ safety.

The high court’s ruling should now put the local recruitment agencies and the new Department of Migrant Workers on notice to be more vigilant about the welfare of distressed seafarers and other overseas Filipinos, and not leave them alone fighting for their rights. Mutia did not have to be a victim twice if the NLRC and his employers closely considered his circumstances, rather than sticking to a narrow interpretation of guidelines that favor the employers.

This ruling is also significant as Filipino seafarers face increasingly challenging environments despite their role as a vital pillar of the world’s maritime industry.


As of 2022, there are around 489,000 Filipino seafarers who keep the world’s supply chains moving. President Marcos, in a speech at the Philippine Maritime Industry Summit last February, said Filipino seafarers account for 25 percent of the global maritime workers and that they brought in $6.71 billion in remittances in 2022.

Valued for their grit and for being hardworking, Filipino seafarers are known to suffer long working hours, cramped and dangerous working conditions, and even discrimination and trafficking.


But they rarely get the attention of the government compared to land-based overseas workers such as domestic helpers who suffer brutal conditions at the hands of their foreign employers.

The long neglect of this valuable migrant sector came to the fore in October last year when the European Union warned it could stop the deployment of Filipino seafarers to EU-flagged vessels if the Philippines remained noncompliant with the International Convention on Standards of Training, Certification, and Watchkeeping for Seafarers (STCW), putting the jobs of 50,000 seamen at risk.

The EU made the warning after noting deficiencies in the education, training, and certification system for Filipino seafarers. The problem, which has persisted since 2006, was traced to the failure of the Maritime Industry Authority, the agency in charge of ensuring compliance with the SCTW, to ensure the proper training and credentials for seafarers.

And while these deficiencies are still being fixed, the seafarers face more challenges with the shipping industry’s modernization.

The President said last week that Filipino seafarers must upgrade their skills as the global maritime industry shifts from using conventional fuel to clean energy between 2030 and 2040.

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Along with the “upskilling’’ of the seafarers, the government should not forget its obligation to first ensure the safety, well-being, and protection of these modern-day heroes.

TAGS: Supreme Court, Workers

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