Wanted: Genuine representation for seafarers in government

Although bringing in much needed foreign exchange to the economy, Filipino seafarers are underrepresented in government.

One of the biggest sectors supporting the Philippines’ economy is the workers, with a big subsector comprising overseas Filipino workers (OFWs). In the meantime, a large number of OFWs are seafarers. However, in the country’s traditional political and governance system, workers and seafarers are among the least represented. Their issues and concerns are rarely given priority when it comes to the reform agenda of the government.  

This is where the party-list system comes in and what it can offer to seafarers and their representatives. In the Philippines, the party-list system is an innovative political and electoral mechanism enshrined in the 1987 Constitution. It intends to help ensure that society’s disadvantaged and largely unrepresented groups are given a voice in government by having representation in Congress, the highest lawmaking body of the country.

The sufficient representation of the disadvantaged groups in government is the primary reason for the adoption of the party-list system, but many controversies and ambiguities hamper the maximization of the system. For instance, should party-list groups only be represented by actual members of marginalized groups, can they be led by individuals who do not actually represent marginalized groups because they themselves belong to business groups or bigger political parties that are far from being marginalized?

While the party-list system cannot be said to guarantee better democratization by opening governance opportunities to various sectors especially those that are marginalized, it still provides a venue for them to increase their political engagement in the country’s democratic processes. 

The party-list scheme aims to “broaden representation in the House of Representatives to include sectors and those organizations that do not have well-defined political constituencies”. It also seeks to “facilitate access to representation of minority or small parties.”  

Not enough true seafarer representation in Congress

According to the Commission on Elections (Comelec), voters vet party-list organizations as a whole when choosing which one to support. This means that in most cases, the identity and background of the nominees are not known or are unclear to voters. Surveys also show that many voters elect a party-list based on its political ads. They do not have informed knowledge about the party-list, its platform, and its nominees.

In a 2019 report, the anti-corruption election watchdog Kontra Daya revealed that almost half of the 134 groups that were then running in the election did not represent the marginalized sectors.

Specific to the party-list groups supposedly representing seafarers in the country, the nominees of said groups are not seafarers and have never been.  The MARINO party-list group, for instance, fielded three nominees, none of whom were ever seafarers. 

Incompatible business interests 

The group’s first nominee is Carlo Lisandro Gonzalez, the son of Carlos “Charlie” Gonzales who is the owner of Ulticon Builders, Inc. (UBI). The company is a general contractor which, back in March 2017, secured a P183 million contract from the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH). 

Gonzalez is an incumbent representative as MARINO won two seats in the 2019 polls. His group is running for reelection in May 2022. According to reports, he is also the vice president for operations of UBI, apart from being the executive vice president of the restaurant chain Tapa King.

The two other nominees in the last elections also had business backgrounds. Jose Antonio G. Lopez previously worked with UBI, and now handles business development at Udenna, owned by Davao businessman Dennis Uy, a close ally of President Rodrigo Duterte. Uy recently partnered with Yu China Telecoms of the Mislatel Consortium and has a provisional contract as the Philippines’ third major telecommunications provider.

Lopez, however, was forced to resign soon after he was declared Congressman in 2019 after a private citizen filed a petition against his eligibility, citing Section 68 of the Omnibus Election Code and Section 9 of the Party-list System Act. Under the said law, any person who is a permanent resident of or an immigrant from a foreign country is not qualified to run for any elective office unless they have waived their status of permanent resident or immigrant of a foreign country.

The second incumbent representative of the group, Rep. Macnell M. Lusotan, is a licensed real estate broker in Davao. He is a member of the Davao Board of Realtors Foundation, Inc. (DBRFI), a local trade association that represents real estate salespersons, brokers, appraisers, and real estate consultants. 

The original third nominee of the group is a former human resource business partner of a large-scale banana exporter company also based in Davao – Sumifru-Philippines. The company sources, procures and exports Cavendish bananas, pineapples, and papayas.  

In October, MARINO announced its nominees for the May 2022 party-list polls. Gonzales and Lusotan remain the first two nominees, while the third nominee is Cebu-based lawyer Collin Rosell. According to a write-up from the group, Rosell practices admiralty law and has represented seafarers. He is also touted to be a “seasoned lawyer” who has a wealth of knowledge on maritime law that will help sharpen the focus on legal issues affecting the maritime sector.

The last two nominees of the group (each party-list organization can field at least five nominees) are, according to MARINO, actual seafarers, Eugene Navoa and Julian Karl Marti Yaun.

A few notable successes

Supporters of MARINO party-list say that the group has done many things for seafarers. MARINO lawmakers have, for instance, succeeded in getting the Magna Carta of Filipino Seafarers (HB 8057) bill, which they authored, approved by the House of Representatives earlier in January this year. According to the supporters, the bill “upholds Filipino seafarers’ rights to proper compensation, safe work environment, medical support, free legal advice, financial assistance, and protection from abusive manning agencies.” 

The MARINO Party-list was also able to secure the prioritization of seafarers in the government’s vaccination program against Covid-19. From being categorized as B3 (other essential workers) or B5 (OFWs), seafarers were placed in the A4 category as frontline personnel.

The group also filed the following bills that have not been approved by Congress: the formation of the Department of Overseas Filipinos Act of 2019; Maritime Safety, Security, and Prevention of Ship-Sourced Pollution Act of the Philippines; the Mandatory OFW Health Immunization Act; the Unhampered Crew Change Act; and the Overseas Filipino Workers Remittance Protection Act.

The MARINO Party-list was able to secure prioritization for seafarers in the government’s Covid-19 vaccination program.

Conflict of interest: Manning agencies and ship owners having influence at seafarer party-list

Another group that proclaims itself to be a champion of seafarers is ANGKLA Party-List.  The Ang Partido ng Marinong Pilipino, Inc (The Party of Filipino Mariners) or ANGKLA Party-list, was actually the first seafarer party-list to win a seat in Congress. 

The party-list served two terms, in 2013 and 2016. Its representative, Jesulito Manalo, a maritime lawyer, is a son of a ship captain, and has authored a total of 128 bills and co-authored 78 others. ANGKLA was credited for the passing of four landmark laws – MARINA Standards of Training, Certification, and Watchkeeping (RA10635), Cabotage Amendments (RA10668), Naval Architecture Modernization (RA10698), and Seafarers’ Protection or Anti Ambulance-Chaser Law (10706).

In 2019, ANGKLA again ran for a seat, hoping for its third win, but failed.  According to Atty. Dennis Gorecho – lawyer, advocate, and columnist – ANGKLA lost because many seafarers found the process for obtaining and renewing license more complicated after the functions of the Professional Regulation Commission (PRC) were transferred to the new government agency Maritime Industry Authority that was created by virtue of ANGKLA’s Republic Act 10635.

ANGKLA is also said to be heavily supported by manning agencies as well as ship owners such as Joint Manning Group (JMG), Society of Naval Architects and Marine Engineers (SONAME), Phil Register of Shipbuilding (PRS), and Shipyards Association of the Phil (SHAP).

A frequent resource person on Congressional and Senate hearings on seafarers’ concerns, Gorecho said that during recent Senate hearings on the proposed Seafarers’ Magna Carta, the manning agencies attempted to resurrect ANGKLA’s escrow bill that was filed earlier in 2015. 

“They wanted to amend the Labor Code, and their amendments if passed would have had significant impact on labor claims governing the immediately “final and executory” nature of decisions issued by the conciliation and mediation boards of the labor department,” he said.  

The rationale of ANGKLA for the bill was to allegedly make sure that there will be a restitution of monetary awards in case the appropriate appellate court annuls or partially or completely totally reverses the monetary judgment award. It aimed to delay the execution of awards for cases involving monetary claims.

Gorecho said: “This would not have been good for seafarers. They would have to wait longer – years – before they receive the mediation agencies’ award for cases that involve monetary claims. Seafarers who fall ill while seeking claims often incur huge debts to sustain their medication; others die before court decisions are released. 

“The direness of their situation forces many seafarers into accepting ex-gratia, a comparatively much smaller amount. How can such a measure be for the welfare of seafarers? Companies have the means to prolong cases, but ordinary claimants cannot wait that long. Some die without getting their claims.” 

Based on this development, Gorecho said that seafarers must vote wisely when it comes to party-lists. “They should support a group that will genuinely protect their interest and not that of capital to the prejudice of their labor rights,” he said.

Most Filipino seafarers live difficult lives back at home. They need all the support they can get so they continue to work with dignity and safety.

Urgent reforms needed to help seafarers

Gorecho’s call is echoed by Engr. Xavier Bayoneta, a retired seafarer with a rank of 3rd engineer and spokesperson of Concerned Seafarers of the Philippines (CSP). He pointed out that seafarers continue to confront many challenges and because of this, genuine reforms are needed to comprehensively address these concerns.

“The biggest problems seafarers face are systemic and they have existed for decades such as the absence of job security and the weak implementation of internationally recognized labor rights. Specific issues such as refusal to grant shore leaves and discrimination based on gender, age, and nationality are prevalent,” he said.

“Reforms and the political will to enforce them are very much needed to help seafarers. Take the issue of wages – they differ depending on one’s nationality. European or American seafarers have much higher salaries (often 100 percent or higher) compared to Filipino or Asian officers and rating doing the same work. How can this be just? What are our lawmakers doing to remedy this injustice?”

Bayoneta also pointed out that so much still has to be done to give justice to seafarers who have been victimized by company abandonment and various violations of their contracts.

He said: “What other issues plague seafarers? Unpaid overtime claims, human trafficking, corruption, illegal recruitment, poor onboard conditions, the practice of blacklisting or watch listing by shipping companies and manning agencies of workers who voice out their concerns, plague seafarers for decades. 

“These problems are aggravated in vessels that fly on flags of convenience or ships registered in other countries instead of the originating country to take advantage of minimal regulations. We really hope that lawmakers will pay attention to these issues and enforce laws that will help Filipino seafarers.” 

One specific reform Bayoneta wants to see is on seafarer training requirements. He said that the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA) and Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (OWWA) require both officers and ratings to undergo too many training seminars before boarding.

He said: “The trainings imposed are redundant, frequent and costly. There are instances when a single training lasts five to 10 days! This is time that seafarers can use better, like being with their families. A seafarer’s training expenses can reach P10,000 to P40,000 (US$198 to US$794), if you factor in not just the tuition, but also the food, transportation, and accommodation expenses. 

“Many seafarers are of the opinion that these training requirements are just schemes by training centers accredited by the MARINA to squeeze out profits at the expense of seafarers.”

He further added that the renewal of a seaman’s license is also dependent upon the completion of the said seminars.  He said “Seafarers don’t have a choice but to undergo these trainings and to shell out all that money.” 

Bayoneta also pointed out that reforms are also needed to ensure that seafarers have reliable government support mechanisms during crisis situations.

“Take the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on seafarers, for instance. Seafarers were denied shore leaves, their contracts were arbitrarily extended, and so many could not get medical treatment when they contracted the virus. The support they badly needed was so late in coming,” he said.

Xavier Bayoneta, spokesperson of Concerned Seafarers of the Philippines (CSP).

Advocating for fishermen too

The retired seafarer also took the cudgels for ordinary fishermen who have been hired by ocean-going fishing vessels. He said that like trained and licensed seafarers, they have their seaman’s book, but they don’t have rights.

Bayoneta said: “A glaring example is the case of 29 Filipino fishermen abandoned by their employers and left without food, clean water, and medicine. They were abandoned near the coast of China by Global Marine and Offshore Resources Inc., and their principal, Jenn Yih Song Seafood LTD. 

“They were left on their own, and the rescue and repatriation efforts by the government were so slow. Also, not all of the stranded fishermen were repatriated. Some are still being traced. While those who were able to go home were denied their back wages by their manning agencies.” 

Bayoneta said that workers in ocean-going fishing vessels are not given enough attention by the government compared to other sea-based workers.”

Fishermen are neglected by the government in terms of representation for quite some time.

The struggle for genuine representation

In 2013, a Supreme Court decision opened the party-list system to groups and parties outside of the marginalized sectors. Political dynasties and society’s elites have since made the system their backdoor into the house of representatives. Mikey Arroyo, son of former president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo ran as Ang Galing Pinoy party-list’s first nominee. The party-list claims to represent security guards, tricycle drivers, farmers, and small businessmen.

For this coming May 2022 elections, the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC), a government task force with a 2021 budget of P19 billion, seeks to win seats in Congress through the party-list system. The task force is responsible for red tagging lawmakers, progressive groups, and critics of the Duterte administration. 

Celine Pialago, NTF-ELCAC spokesperson, is the first nominee of Malasakit Movement Party-list. Jeffrey Celiz, who also works for the NTF-ELCAC, is Abante Sambayanan’s first nominee, while Michelle Gumabao, former beauty queen and now NTF-ELCAC ambassador, is the second nominee of Mothers for Change.

Women farmers’ group AMIHAN said these fake party-lists narrow the chances of marginalized sectors to gain genuine representation in the House of Representatives. “These fake party-list groups use the party-list system as a placeholder title to obtain seats in Congress,” they said.

Still, seafarers can benefit from the party-list system by having a genuine representative of their own.

Bayoneta believes that the party-list system can aid marginalized sectors as long as people choose the representatives that truly represent their sector.  

“Their representatives probably never boarded ships as seafarers and may find it hard to understand our situation and needs. Their candidacy didn’t excite me since it seems that they are more inclined to promote their business interests,” he said.

Bayoneta further elaborated, “As a whole, lawmakers who claim to represent seafarers should also actively campaign for the rights and welfare of seafarers, help civil organizations push agencies like the POEA to do their job right, and file investigations and resolutions against malpractices, labor-rights violations, corruption, and genuinely stand with the sea-based workers.”

In the Philippines, seafarers are among the least represented in government. Their issues and concerns are rarely given priority when it comes to the reform agenda. (Credit: Batang Peney)

Meaningful reforms but lacking in numbers

Not solely representing seafarers of the Philippines, the party-list group Bayan Muna (People First) has strong links with unions, people’s organizations, and civil society groups advocating sea-based workers’ rights. The group is one of the most well-known in the Philippines and has repeatedly won two to three seats in Congress since its formation and engagement in elections in 2001.

One of the group’s elected representatives is Rep. Ferdinand Gaite. He authored 641 bills and resolutions and co-authored 17 others. He is also one of the principal authors of the Magna Carta of Filipino Seafarers.

He said: “Current Philippine laws to protect seafarers are lacking and imprecise compared to the actual needs and situation of sea-based workers. That is why before crafting the bill, we consulted seafarers and advocates and found that the absence of security of tenure greatly affects the workers. This affects their eligibility to receive benefits such as 13th-month pay and separation or termination pay. 

“It also makes them less susceptible to watch-listing practices of companies and manning agencies and strengthen their opportunity of successive employment onboard ships. And just like many land-based workers, seafarers also deserve retirement benefits at the right time and age.” 

Gaite said that his group has also proposed a bill that seeks to regularize employment for seafarers who have worked for a cumulative period of one year with the same employer, manning agency, or ship owner, both domestic or foreign.

“Compared to land-based workers who only have to work for six months before they are regularized, the peculiarity of seafarers’ work situation makes one year the apt time frame for regularization,” he said.

“It’s long overdue that this very important issue of job security for seafarers is addressed. We also believe that those who work in ocean-going fishing vessels do experience almost the same situation, risk, and hardship as seafarers. They operate machines and ensure the safe journey of the ship. They should also enjoy the benefits of the law. 

“In our proposal, workers in fishing vessels, particularly those who navigate inland waters, those closely adjacent to sheltered waters, or where port regulations apply, are covered.”

As earlier mentioned, the bill already passed in Congress, and the consolidated and final House version is now in the Senate. Unfortunately, the two meaningful provisions – security of tenure and inclusion of fishing vessels – were excluded from the final draft.

Seafarers must vote wisely when it comes to party-lists. They should support a group that will genuinely protect their interest and labor rights.

Seafarers must vote wisely 

At the end of the day, what seafarers need is comprehensive support so they can continue to do their work safely, with dignity, and with security.

“The improvement of processes such as the cutting of time spent on queues, the shortening of the processing of the renewal of licenses, examinations application, and other documents are important, we do not deny that. However, legislations that promote the rights and long-term welfare of seafarers – from training, deployment to social reintegration – have more impact on the welfare of sea-based workers and their families,” Bayoneta said.

This coming election, Bayoneta and the CSP encourage candidates to campaign for the passing into law of the Magna Carta of Filipino Seafarers, push for the inclusion of security of tenure provision in the Magna Carta, and the strengthening of the implementation of MCL 2006. They also want candidates to bring up the issue of fishermen which have been neglected for quite some time now.

Bayoneta also hopes that seafarers can be more discerning in choosing their representatives as there are party-list groups that only make use of the marginalized sector’s name to exploit their strength in numbers but push for their own business agendas.

“We should look beyond political ads and further study what they have actually done for the sector,” he said. 

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