BETTER DAYS

Senator Sonny Angara

After languishing in the legislative mill for over a decade, the bill institutionalizing a Magna Carta of Filipino Seafarers, which we co-sponsored, has finally reached the plenary debates in the Senate. We laud Senator Joel Villanueva, the Chairman of the Senate Committee on Labor, Employment, and Human Resources, for his hard work and savvy in crafting a version that balances the interests of all stakeholders involved to meaningfully define and uphold the rights, minimum standards of work, and compulsory benefits of sea-based Filipino workers.

I have filed this measure consistently since my second term as Representative of Aurora Province in 2007, in full recognition of our seafarers’ contributions to the country. For one, sea-based workers have contributed at least $6 billion (approximately P300 billion) in remittances annually since 2018 per Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas (BSP) statistics. Seafaring has also become inextricably linked with our nation’s global identity with Filipino seafarers constituting a third (or over 500,000) of the world’s 1.6 million seafarer population according to the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA) and the International Chamber of Shipping.

Even throughout the pandemic, seafarers have remained critical as they power the shipping industry that links countries to critical medical supplies and keeps the global economy running. And yet, despite the crucial role these sea-based workers play, they sometimes go without any support to handle the unique challenges they face in the new normal.

The United Nations (UN) even described seafarers as “collateral victims” of COVID-19 restrictions and travel bans with over 250,000 sea-based workers estimated by the International Maritime Organization (IMO) to be either barred from going home as they are stranded in seas or restricted from working being grounded onshore.

One shipping industry commentary also noted how even though seafarers are considered key workers, they are not treated as such at all. The commentary cited instances where seafarers had limited access to medical help with some even prevented from leaving their vessels to seek emergency treatment during the pandemic’s onset last year. The IMO also observed that depression and anxiety were prevalent among seafarers due to their extended stay in the sea, which was made more difficult by vague company policies that hindered their home governments from repatriating them.

The Magna Carta of Filipino Seafarers responds to these evolving challenges. For instance, under the measure, seafarers are afforded the Right to Information such that ship owners, manning agencies, and others involved in recruitment and placement are required to provide clear information on employment terms and conditions.

There are also the Right to Communication and the Right to Information of Seafarer’s Family or next-of-kin that guarantee access to crucial information and communication facilities for the seafarer and the seafarer’s family. In addition, the Right to Free Legal Representation and the Right to Consultation ensure that seafarers are not only aware and consulted on maritime policies and regulations, but also have legal assistance within reach given that the nature of their work spans multiple jurisdictions with differing laws.

Most important in the measure are the compulsory benefits and standards of work. These ensure that seafarers have a standardized work contract providing the maximum hours of work, minimum hours of rest, decent accommodations, sanitation, recreation and food facilities, onboard and offshore medical care.

Seafarers also have the right to be members and receive benefits from the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (OWWA), Social Security System (SSS), PhilHealth, and Pag-IBIG Fund, among others. Further, the shipowner or the manning agency shall shoulder the expenses of the seafarer related to repatriation, reintegration, or COVID-19 related quarantine.

Seafarers comprise a significant portion of our overseas workers. Former Supreme Court Justice once described them as “an exploited class” and “thoroughly disadvantaged,” adding that the least that government can do is to protect them with our laws.

In recent years, we authored and sponsored several laws to enhance the welfare of our Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) including sea based workers such as the provision in the Customs Modernization and Tariff Act or CMTA (RA 10863) that allows balikbayans to bring home tax-free their balikbayan boxes valued up to P150,000; the OWWA Act (RA 10801) that provided representation for seafarers in the OWWA Board; and the Seafarers Protection Act (RA 10706) that prohibit ill-motivated practices of some unscrupulous professionals who take advantage of Filipino seafarers.

The Magna Carta for Filipino Seafarers should be part of this list. And as we commemorate National Seafarer’s Day on Sept. 26, showing support for its swift passage would be the most appropriate way to give tribute to our unsung heroes at sea.

Sen. Sonny Angara has been in public service for 17 years. He has authored and sponsored more than 200 laws. He is currently serving his second term in the Senate.

E-mail: sensonnyangara@yahoo.com| Facebook, Twitter & Instagram: @sonnyangara