By Carlo Castro
Undoubtedly, the Philippines is the most important source of seafarers in the global shipping industry. Thirty-two percent of nearly 2 million seafarers around the world are Filipinos, cementing the fact that the labor supply the country provides is competent and trustworthy. Filipino seafarers also greatly contribute to the country’s economic growth, with overseas Filipino workers remitting $1.994 billion in February this year, bringing in the cumulative remittances to $4 billion for the first two months of the year. Of the inflow of cash remittances, $4.8 billion were sent in by sea-based Filipino workers, representing a 18.60 percent year-on-year growth.
However, recent developments involving bogus claims of Filipino seafarers against foreign-based principals of local manning agents started to unfold, this highly questionable act involving seafarers and so-called ambulance-chasing lawyers could very well threaten the robust maritime industry.
As this paper exposed in a two-part series in 2013 titled “Unholy Alliance: Rising Bogus Filipino Seafarer Claims Starting to Turn Off Foreign Shipowners and Unholy Alliance Part II,” there was an urgent need to put an end to the increasing trend of sham claims of Filipino seafarers, who, on the one hand, fell prey to this ambulance-chasing lawyers’ racket and on the other hand, allowed themselves to be used to extract money from shipping companies. TNM also published an article titled “The Lawyer Who Raised a Seafarer from the Dead” in its MarchApril 2012 issue about a legal practitioner who substituted a seafarer’s wife to file and subsequently claim her husband’s permanent disability claim.
Engr. Nelson P. Ramirez, president of the United Filipino Seafarers who made it his advocacy to push for reforms in the maritime industry, warned that this modus operandi could actually jeopardize the position of the Philippines in the global industry and would cause undue burden to the thousands of Filipino families who depend on seabased workers for living.
“Unless this unacceptable system is changed, local manning agencies will continue to lose their foreign principals which will unduly affect the image of the Filipino maritime community,” said Mr. Ramirez.
As part of continuing efforts to institute reforms in the industry, Mr. Ramirez said that legislation is needed to stop these anomalies and punish unscrupulous individuals behind the scheme.
“Our dear legislators should make it a priority to enact a law in a bid to stop these abusive practices,” he added.
A leading industry official echoed the statement of Ramirez, adding that a strict legal framework is needed to ensure that Filipino crew members and manning companies operating in the Philippines are protected. Miguel Angel V. Rocha, executive vice-president and chief operating officer of CF Sharp Crew Management Corp. based in Intramuros, Manila who was the first one to call attention to this menace in 2010, narrated how his company lost six vessels so far this year because of supposed bogus permanent disability claims and getting turned off by this practice.
He said that on the average, his company gets 80 cases every year, although some have proper merits. In some instances, he said, seafarers are the “victims” because lawyers—the ambulant-chasers—approach and entice them to file charges against the shipping firm, in return for big amounts of money.
“This illegal practice makes a mockery of the legal system to the detriment of the Philippine seafaring industry. One day we will realize that several foreign principals bowed out of the Philippines in favor of other nationalities,” said Mr. Rocha, whose company is one of the oldest manning agencies that started in 1963 and with over 18,000 global deployments annually.
He cited a case wherein a Chief Cook filed disability claims against four different manning agencies where he worked for- for loss of hearing on his left ear.
Even a foreign shipping company had noted the apparent collusion among Filipino seafarers, lawyers and even labor arbiters to extract money from shipping firms. In a letter to the Filipino Association for Mariners’ Employment and the Joint Manning Group by CF Sharp’s Arab principal, the fleet management official expressed dismay and alarm over compensation claims by Filipino seafarers amid the firm’s huge investment on trainings, welfare and overall healthcare of Filipino crew on board the foreign vessels.
“Our company has always been concerned about the welfare of our crew members and all sickness and injury cases are closely monitored through our local correspondents for treatment and recovery. We also go to great extents to compensate and bear the cost of complete recovery of any crew member genuinely needing assistance. Unfortunately, we find that a large number of crew members seem to be abusing this facility granted to them under the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA) Standard Employment Contract”, the Arab principal wrote.
“We also know for a fact that majority of Filipino crew members who go in this direction are coerced by lawyers who will eventually collect a good part of the compensation amount from unsuspecting seafarer,” the letter read.
“It is also of our utmost concern that the National Labor Relations Commission (NLRC) appears to be biased in favor of the Filipino crew members and generously and mindlessly awards ‘Total Permanent Disability’ in each and every case without looking into the logic or reasoning behind their verdicts. It has now reached a stage where we have to consider every Filipino seafarer who visits a doctor to be a potential claimant,” the letter stated.
Capt. Reynaldo Casareo, president of Cargo Safeway, Inc. which was also previously involved in a string of ridiculous disability claims, had said that huge sums in US dollars were involved that entice lawyers to convince Filipino mariners to claim disability benefits against their companies. For seafarer ratings holding a position of AB or oiler and below onboard a vessel with an existing Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA), Total Permanent Disability amounts to as much as US$89,100. For junior officers and ratings above AB or oiler, the maximum Total Permanent Disability that can be claimed is US$118,800. And for senior officers, the most that they can get from filing Total Permanent Disability claim is US$148,500. For vessels with no CBAs, the maximum is only US$78,000 based on the provisions indicated in the Standard Employment Contract of the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration.
A number of industry leaders had also revealed that some ambulant chasing lawyers are in cahoots with the labor arbiters. Former president of Bridge Marine Corporation, C/Engr. Isagani Valmonte said that seafarers who have a Collective Bargaining Agreement must file their case in the National Conciliation and Mediation Board.
According to Mr. Ramirez, unless this debilitating disease grappling the shipping industry is put to an end and an effective measure is in place to correct these abuses, unscrupulous individuals will continue to go unimpeded with their coercive practices to feed their pockets of huge amounts of money without due regard to the welfare of the local manning agencies and the seafaring industry as a whole.