Advocates celebrate as contentious section removed from Philippine Magna Carta of Seafarers  

Advocacy groups supporting seafarers have declared victory as Congress on May 22 scrapped a controversial bond requirement (Section 59) from the Magna Carta of Seafarers, which required a seafarer, in cases of monetary claims, to post a bond if the manning agency appealed to a higher court of a decision by the National Conciliation and Mediation Board (NCMB) or the National Labor Relations Commission (NLRC level).

The bond requirement was put in place of an equally controversial escrow provision, meant to give manning agencies and their principles a guarantee they would be able to recoup the money they awarded to seafarers, once a higher court reversed the earlier ruling in favor of the seafarer. Proponents said this requirement would discourage the allegedly rampant practice of ambulance chasing in the country.

“We see the removal of the bond provision as a win for seafarers. This requirement, had it been included, would be an unjust burden on seafarers, many of whom are already in financial distress. We hope that the final version of the bill and the resulting law will provide more equitable protection and support to Filipino seafarers without imposing additional financial burdens during legal disputes,” said the Concerned Seafarers of the Philippines (CSP), a support group for seafarers and their families.

A long battle for seafarers’ rights

The chairperson of the CSP, Xavier Bayoneta, said the fight for a genuine Magna Carta for Filipino seafarers has spanned decades.

“While we recognize this latest development, decades in the parliamentary process, we know that this version of the Magna Carta have a long way to go before becoming a genuine Magna Carta for Filipino seafarers,” he said, adding that Filipino seafarers continued to grapple with many attacks against their labor rights, such as contract violation, wage theft, excessive state exaction, age discrimination, and blacklisting.

“Even if the deliberations on the Magna Carta have ended, Filipino seafarers must continue to organize and mobilize their ranks. We must hold steadfast, stand our ground and not be intimidated by business greed and corrupt practices in the pursuit of a genuinely pro-seafarer Magna Carta,” he said.

In the senate, Sen. Risa Hontiveros lauded the removal of the bond provision, saying that “it never made any sense”. 

“Seafarers who face medical and health difficulties have been lobbying and appealing for benefits because they have nothing to spend anymore. Already deep in medical expenses and about to drown in bond? I don’t think that’s right,” she said.

Atty. Dennis R. Gorecho, who heads the seafarers’ division of a legal office, also lauded the removal of the bond provision.

“The proponents of the original version with the escrow and the bond provisions, sweepingly linked these supposed remedies to the problem of ambulance chasing. They stressed that the provisions were necessary to ensure the restitution of monetary awards in case the appropriate appellate court annuls or partially or totally reverses the monetary judgment award. 

“Still, it has to be pointed out that under the Labor Code, the posting of bond is imposed only on the side of employer. Labor is required to pay only a minimal appeal fee. The proponents of the execution bond erroneously presumed that the seafarer is in the same economic footing as the employer.”

Gorecho reiterated that seafarers claimed payment of monetary benefits because they were in financial distress due to their medical condition.

“Many are jobless, sick, disabled and infirm who incurred huge debts to sustain their medication while others died before the decision by the Supreme Court is released. If the original version of the Magna Carta was passed, instead of saving his earnings for his medication, ailing seafarers or those who incurred disabilities because of accidents in the workplace will be forced to redirect them to the execution bond, jeopardizing further their economic well-being.”

Gorecho said the requirement for an execution bond was in direct violation of the constitutional guarantee on equal protection. Seafarers will be “penalized”, as their rights, guaranteed by the constitution, will be eroded.

“Simply put, all persons or things similarly situated should be treated alike, both as to rights conferred and responsibilities imposed. The original escrow and bond provisions singled out seafarer claims from other labor claims, both local and overseas. This is discriminatory against seafarers because there was no substantial distinction between the claims of a seafarer and any other laborer.”

Hontiveros said: “Every seafarer is regarded as a modern hero because of their contributions to our country and, of course, to their families. Even though what we went through was difficult, in the end, our struggle resulted in victory for our seafarers.”

Religious groups have also issued their support for the new amended bill and said that it should be passed into law immediately.

The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines-Episcopal Commission for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People (CBCP-ECMI)’s vice chair, Bishop Ruperto Santos, said seafarers are valuable “not only because they are essential workers domestically but their services are important contributors to the global economy.”

“It is imperative that we become diligent in safeguarding their wellbeing by protecting their rights and ensuring their welfare,” Santos said in a statement.

Advocates protest against bond requirement in Magna Carta of Seafarers.

Shipping companies to appeal

Not everyone, however, is happy with the removal of the contentious provisions. Foreign shipowners led by the International Chamber of Shipping (ICS) and the International Maritime Employers’ Council (IMEC) said the removal of the bond provision was a step back.

Secretary general of ICS Guy Platten and IMEC chairperson Belal Ahmed sent a letter to Executive Secretary of the Philippines Lucas Bersamin, saying that Section 59 (Execution of Judgment and Monetary Awards) was expected to become the enabling law of the Maritime Labor Convention 2006 and other international conventions.

“Section 59 is intended to address the longstanding problem of ambulance chasing, spearheaded by ambulance-chasing lawyers with significant consequences for the maritime employment landscape in the Philippines and resulting in seafaring jobs being driven away from the country,” they wrote.

The two groups said that in their meeting with President Ferdinand Marcos Jr., they specifically requested the inclusion of Section 59. They said that if the provision is properly implemented, it will “go a long way towards addressing the proliferation of ambulance-chasing cases.”

Patten and Ahmed said they hoped Section 59 would be reincluded in the Magna Carta of Filipino Seafarers to prove the Philippine government’s commitment to strengthen the national seafaring industry and to address the long-standing problem of ambulance chasing.

At an online press conference by ICS and IMEC, maritime lawyer Herbert Tria alleged there were already companies that are no longer giving the crewing of their newbuildings to Filipino seafarers because of the removal of Section 59. “For newbuildings, Filipinos are not getting that market and we are losing that opportunity.” 

Ahmed added that many employers have decided to cut their investments in training their Filipino crew to operate specialized vessels using green fuels or a hybrid of both green and fossil fuels.

“This is the case not only in newbuildings, but also in specialized vessels for the extensive training of their crew. People are not investing in the Philippines as much as they would have done if things had been better,” he said, adding that there was rising concern over the future of Philippine manning because of what he said was the Philippine government’s inaction on ambulance chasing.

Stand with Filipino seafarers

Atty. Neri Colmenares of the political group Bayan Muna (People First) thanked Sen. Hontiveros, Sen. Koko Pimentel, and Gabriela Rep. Arlene Brosas.

“They really fought against the dilution of the rights of seafarers. Without them, many more anti-seafarer provisions would have been inserted in the bill. We came upon information that shipowners and manning agencies are scrambling to reinsert the escrow-bond provision,” he said.

Colmenares, a former lawmaker, said they would be watchful against attempts to reinstate the escrow bond provision even as they continued to push for reforms in the maritime industry and for the welfare of all seafarers.

“The demand for the recognition of the security of tenure for all seafarers must be pursued considering that this right is not expressly guaranteed in the law. We call on seafarers to continue to advocate for reforms and demand for their just share in the fruits of their labor, especially since foreign shipowners and companies earn billions of dollars each year through the seafarers’ labor.

“It is about time that the government stand with Filipinos and not with aliens.”

The ratified version of the bill is expected to be submitted soon to the president for his required signature. In the event that the president does not sign the bill, it will lapse 30 days after it is received by the Office of the President.

All photos credit: Atty.Dennis Gorecho

Top photo: Advocates to protect seafarers’ rights.

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