Some foreign-based principals of local manning agents are starting to feel the pinch of the rising trend of bogus claims of Filipino seafarers, mostly ratings. While the costs involved in paying off those often ridiculous seafarer claims hardly put a dent on the deep pockets of foreign shipowners, their pride can only take so much crap from the obviously flawed legal system of the Philippine seafaring industry.

When pride gets a beating too often, people resort to doing even the unthinkable. Shipowners are no exception. In fact, over the past couple of months, a number of foreign shipowners have noted a surge in bogus claims cases by Filipino seafarers that they are starting to be turned off and begin looking elsewhere to source crew to man their vessels.

Unless it’s a dengue- or malaria-carrying mosquito, one mosquito bite can’t hurt or kill a person, but numerous bites will, if not from the uncontrollable itch then from lost of blood. The decision of one or two foreign shipowners to turn their backs on the Philippines as a crew-supplying country would certainly not hurt the local maritime industry but when the number gets way too many, for sure its demise is certain as the coming of the night.

Miguel V. Rocha, Vice President of CF Sharp Crew Management Corp., one of the largest and most reputable manning companies in the Philippines, has recently shared to the Filipino Association for Mariners’ Employment (FAME) and the Joint Manning Group (JMG), a correspondence from their company’s Arab principal to illustrate how foreign shipowners are starting to get ticked by absurd seafarer claims.

In his e-mail to CF Sharp, the fleet management official of the Arab shipowner has openly expressed their company’s concern on the recent trend of Filipino crewmembers using every possible opportunity to convert injury or illness cases to permanent disability compensation claims running into tens of thousands of dollars.

“We also note that they draw sick wages for months on the apparent pretext of no improvement in medical condition while claiming non-recovery,” the official added.

“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) terms and conditions,” he posed.

“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 seafarers,” he continued.

“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 awarding “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 official of the Arab shipowning company lamented.

The foreign shipping executive warned that the trend shall earn disrepute for Filipino seafarers and shall severely harm the Philippine manning industry in the future.

“Our company has had an alarming number of ‘Total Permanent Disability’ cases from Filipino seafarers in the last two years. What I hear from other shipowners is that this phenomenon is not uncommon to other companies employing Filipino seafarers. I also understand that some of them have already started investigating the possibility of recruiting non-Filipino crew,” he disclosed.

“We have invested heavily into the training of Filipino seafarers, both officers and ratings, and we would like to retain them in our pool. However, with the rapid increase in claims, we are now being forced to consider otherwise. Still, we would like to know, what steps are being taken by the local maritime industry to address this problem and if the stakeholders see any solution in sight,” the letter concluded.

“Bogus seafarer claims are nothing but larceny. Practically every manning agency has had their fair share of the woes. The problem has become severe that when it reaches critical mass, we would expect shipowners to finally say: ‘Enough is enough! Goodbye Philippines,” Mr. Rocha pointed out.

“What makes the problem worse is the fact that it contains the most dangerous element, which is corruption in the local seafaring industry’s legal system, with the NLRC at the center of it all. There is something really rotten in the system,” he stressed.

While he did not discount the possibility of collusion among lawyers in milking foreign shipowners using the often unwitting Filipino seafarers as pawns to their schemes, Mr. Rocha insists that the corruption at NLRC is the root cause of the problem. “The collusion of lawyers is just a byproduct of the corruption in the system,” Mr. Rocha stated.

The CF Sharp Crew Management official also recalled that the industry has brought the matter to the attention of the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) five or six years ago but it seems that the department’s hands are tied and so does the POEA, which like NLRC are attached agencies of DOLE.

“Along with the corruption in the Commission on Higher Education (CHED) for allowing the operations of substandard maritime schools in the country, the flawed legal system of the local seafaring industry makes up the major threats to our maritime industry, which if not abetted soon enough, would eventually trigger its demise. We are simply giving other crew-supplying nations a chance to catch up or surpass us,” Mr. Rocha stressed.

“Shipowners may be here today but they may start considering going out tomorrow if we do not address this problem soon enough. The Philippines may be very confident now with its status as the world seafaring capital but this problem can eventually brought it down to its knees. Maybe not today or tomorrow; but in two or three years, who knows?” he quipped.

FAME and the JMG are now drafting strategies on how to address the industry’s nagging menace that seems to be giving it a slow but sure death like a malignant tumor.

The Likely Culprits

Capt. Reynaldo Casareo, President of Cargo Safeway, Inc. and a director of FAME, openly expressed notion that there is in fact an unholy alliance among lawyers using the Filipino seafarers as front or means to extract large amount of cash from the insurance of foreign shipowners.

Cargo Safeway has had a string of ridiculous claims cases over the past couple of years including the publicized exploits of a Filipino chief cook who got a total of three ‘Total Permanent Disability’ claims from different foreign shipowners because he apparently lost his sense of hearing in each of those case. The chief cook was in the process of filing for his fourth claim for the same number of instance that he lost his hearing but his claims cases with Cargo Safeway got stonewalled for very obvious reason.

Capt. Casareo disclosed to Tinig ng Marino why the claims issue have whetted the appetites of enterprising lawyers currently operating in the confines of the local maritime industry.

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$60,000 based on the provisions of the POEA Standard Employment Contract.

“It is so easy to do the math with these figures as well as spark the interests of lawyers and ambulant chasers,” Capt. Casareo remarked.

“Never mind if it takes years before they can collect eventually. There is a saying among lawyers that the longer the case goes on, the more benefits they can get. Sabi nga sa anak ng abogado na gustong magpasikat sa kanyang ama at tinapos kaagad yung napakatagal na kaso “Loko kang bata ka. Hindi mo ba alam na dahil sa kasong yan kaya ka nakapagtapos ng abogasya!’ (One senior lawyer was quoted to have said to his son-lawyer when the latter showed off that he finished a procrastinated case swiftly: Why did you do that? Didn’t you know that it is because of that very same case that you were able to finish studying law?)” he explained.

In explaining the modus operandi of ambulant chasers, these lawyers have so-called para-legal staffs who serve as runners, often hanging around at the Luneta Seafarer’s Center or places where Filipino seafarers normally congregate.

When they see an opportunity to come in to a gullible Filipino seafarer, they bring the matter to the ambulant chaser and they can have the fictitious claims case up and running soon enough.

Often they also tell the seafarers that they need not worry about financially hurting the shipowning company that they once worked for because it is the insurance which shall cover the cost of the claims.

Of course ambulant-chasers could not operate if they are not in cahoots with the labor arbiters of NLRC, who have never ruled against Filipino seafarer claims no matter how fictitious or absurd the case is from the onset.

There is even a strong possibility that lawyers representing local P&I correspondents are also into the scheme because they are normally the ones tapped by Owners to dispute or present their cases against the labor arbiters and NLRC. Thus far, their records in winning a claims case at the labor arbiter level is nil, nada, zero, thus enforcing the notion that either they are mostly incompetent or simply just going through the motions.

Capt. Casareo even shared to Tinig ng Marino a correspondence from a Japan P&I Club addressed to a local correspondent on the issue of a recent bogus claim filed against a Japanese principal of Cargo Safeway, ironically by a chief cook again.

In that case, the chief cook filed for a permanent disability claim for arthritis even though he was diagnosed by the company-designated physician to be physically fit to work and that his disease is not work-related but as a result of one’s unhealthy lifestyle. The lawyers of the local correspondent lost the case at the labor arbiter level so Cargo Safeway decided to bring in a legal enforcement through its own lawyer.

In defending the bringing in of its own lawyer, Capt. Casareo, in his letter to the lawyers of the local correspondents mentioned: “It is sad to say, but I cannot remember any case handled by your correspondents for our company that won at the level of the labor arbiter. Not even the above case which we both believed as well as our Owners that the evidence is strong enough but was lost.”

“Most cases that were lost at the labor arbiter’s level were either settled with Japan P&I approval after a substantial amount is reduced. Thanks to the effort of the lawyers in convincing the other lawyer and the seafarer to accept the greatly reduced amount. Most cases are appealed to the Commission,” Capt. Casero lamented.

The Japan P&I Club backed Capt. Casareo’s notion when it said in its letter: “Although you have insisted that you have consistently and forcefully argued that the seafarer was declared fit to work and his illness is not work-related one, it is the confessed fact that you lost this case at NLRC labor arbiter level.”

“We are embarrassed to hear the Cargo Safeway’s complaints since it means that our correspondents are no longer considered reliable. The local manning agents appear to rely on their lawyer rather than our correspondents. You should be ashamed of yourselves. At any rate, we agree with the view of Cargo Safeway that this case must never be lost because the seafarer does not appear to have suffered any disability. So, we consider that you cannot be helped being blamed as to your performance,” the letter explained.

“In the above circumstances, as Cargo Safeway seems to have strong confidence in defending this matter, the Owners have decided to relieve you of this case and to have the lawyer appointed by Cargo Safeway take over the defense of this mater hereafter. So, you are requested to get out of and to give over this case to Cargo Safeway’s lawyer,” the Japan P&I Club instructed the lawyers of the local correspondents.

Eventually, the lawyer hired by Cargo Safeway to fight the case out got a favorable decision from the NLRC and the labor arbiter ruling was reversed.

Capt. Casareo is also wondering why local correspondents do not want to furnish copies to FAME of all the Total Permanent Disability claims cases that have been awarded to Filipino seafarers in the past. FAME made the request from way back to ensure that none of its members would be duped into hiring Filipino seafarers who were able to get disability claims while at the employ of other manning agencies.

Uncharacteristically, the local correspondents refuse to give the manning agents a database which would help them in fishing out loose cannons and for them to identify and discern which are those who filed legal claims and those who have just made it a business endeavor.

Members of FAME have since agreed to come up with their own claims database so that they all could refer to it whenever they would evaluate the application of Filipino seafarers coming in to their respective doorsteps.

Capt. Casareo also revealed that majority in the local maritime industry are pushing voluntary arbitration to settle claims cases and they are pushing that it should be transferred from the NLRC to the National Conciliation and Mediation Board (NCMB).

There is also that looming possibility that some elements of some maritime labor unions are into the scheme as the ambulant chasers appear to have dossiers of private information regarding Filipino seafarers before they ‘market’ their services to them.

Hating with a Passion

Chief Engr. Isagani Valmonte, President of Bridge Marine Corporation, also despises the handiworks of ambulant chasers and a number of lawyers in the local maritime industry.

“These people form the formidable group of termites that can bring the house or the local maritime industry down if not acted upon soon,” he said.

Bridge Marine has had a fair share of ridiculous and sometimes very fascinating claims cases from Filipino seafarer ratings that those made an entire mockery of the legal system in the maritime industry.

“Even high school students would know who was telling the truth in those fictitious claims cases but the NLRC labor arbiters and the Commission saw otherwise. It is so frustrating,” says C/E Valmonte.

“It is time that the industry consider taking out the NLRC from the maritime industry’s legal system equation. We have to act now before it becomes too late,” says the Bridge Marine president who is also the External Vice President of the United Filipino Seafarers (UFS).

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