Troubled waters | Inquirer Opinion
EDITORIAL

Troubled waters

/ 05:15 AM April 26, 2024

For the fourth time in six months, Filipino seafarers found themselves caught in the crossfire of the Middle East crisis on board ships targeted for their Israeli links.

The latest incident involves four Filipinos among 25 other crew members of the container ship MSC Aries that was seized by Iran in the Strait of Hormuz on April 13. Earlier in March, Houthi rebels fired anti-ship missiles at the bulk cargo vessel MV True Confidence which had 13 Filipino crewmen, two of whom were killed.

On Jan. 11, the Iranian Navy took control of the oil tanker MV Saint Nikolas, along with its 18 Filipino crew. Six of them remain in Iranian custody, according to the Department of Foreign Affairs. Previously, on Nov. 19 last year, Houthi rebels seized car carrier MV Galaxy Leader, with 17 Filipino seafarers still held captive.

Such alarming incidents are a clear threat on the life and livelihood of some 400,000 seafarers that the country sends out every year from 2017. The Philippines has been supplying more than 25 percent of the world’s maritime labor needs, which generated $6.14 billion in seafarers’ remittances in 2018.

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‘Warlike zones’

Aware of the risks and dangers to this valuable manpower resource, the government has stepped up several measures to protect Filipino seafarers in what have been called “warlike zones.”

In a recent virtual press briefing, Hans Cacdac, officer in charge of the Department of Migrant Workers (DMW), announced the development of an online registry where Filipino seafarers can declare their refusal to sail should their ship’s route take them to the Red Sea or the Gulf of Aden. This “right to refuse” empowers Filipino seafarers even while at sea to directly inform the DMW about their decision not to traverse these areas via an online portal. The refusal document has to be submitted to the licensed manning agencies (LMAs) and the principal or employer.

In a department order issued on March 30, Cacdac directed LMAs to “[a]llow seafarers to freely decide to refuse sailing in the said areas/zones without discrimination and prejudice to their present and future employment.” Manning agencies are also required to inform Filipino seafarers bound for warlike zones of their rights and entitlements to help them make “informed decisions.” Shipping companies are meanwhile obliged to cover repatriation expenses and offer additional compensation equivalent to two months’ basic wage, as had been done during the Gulf War, the piracy attacks in Somalia, and previous adverse events.

Magna Carta of Filipino Seafarers

While well-meaning and practicable, it is likely that many Filipino seafarers would pass on this tempting option for fear of being blacklisted in the tight and highly competitive labor market. Recall that Filipino household workers have been known to breach the government’s ban on overseas employment under abusive circumstances, choosing to risk their lives rather than face the prospect of being jobless back home.

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Which means that the suggestion for the DMW to stop the deployment of Filipino seafarers to these “warlike zones” could likely lead to them using unofficial—and thus dangerous—channels to find work, undermining the government’s goal to protect them.

There have been calls as well for President Marcos to finally sign the Magna Carta of Filipino Seafarers into law, which Presidential Communications Office Secretary Cheloy Velicaria Garafil said was “under further review.”

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Among other provisions, the Magna Carta regulates the hiring and recruitment of seafarers, ensures the safety of their working conditions onboard (quality of meals, size of cabin, how far from the engine room, etc.), their care and compensation in case of illness, accidents onboard, piracy, death, and so on.

Controversial bond provision

While urgently needed, the measure has drawn reservations from several quarters, including government labor agencies and seafarers’ advocates, particularly because of the controversial bond provision. The last-minute insertion would compel seafarers to pay a sizeable premium or cash bond before they can access the compensation awarded to them by the National Labor Relations Commission (NLRC) after their case has been decided in their favor with finality. This is discriminatory, selective, and shows unequal protection of the law since this same obligation is not required of land-based overseas workers and local employees.

It also violates the Labor Code, the NLRC asserted. Under the Labor Code, only employers are required to post a bond in case they want to appeal a labor arbiter’s decision. As it is, the measure erroneously presumes that the seafarer and shipowner are on equal economic level, when the seafarer had in fact gone through the hoops in labor arbitration because of financial distress.

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Seeing the whole picture after reviewing the Magna Carta’s bond provision should give the Marcos administration the opportunity to walk its talk: that of “advancing the welfare of our seafarers and other overseas nationals [as an] ongoing commitment.”

TAGS: Magna Carta of Seafarers, opinion

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