The ‘David and Goliath’ legal battle for seafarers’ death benefits

The maritime profession has always been identified as a perilous job replete with health and safety hazards in relation to the risks of accidents, illnesses and mortality.

The seafarer is often mentally, physically and emotionally stressed, aside from being constantly exposed to a variable environment while working on board vessels that cross ocean boundaries.

The European Maritime Safety Agency declared in a report that there were 745 work-related fatalities among maritime workers and nearly 9,000 persons injured between 2011 and 2020, among other tragic statistics of this sector.

The job of a seafarer is, indeed, not exactly a walk in the park.

However, the right over death benefits has also become a long legal battle for some families of deceased Filipino seafarers.

Under the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration standard employment contract (POEA SEC), in the case of a seafarer’s work-related death during the term of his contract, the employer shall pay his beneficiaries the Philippine currency equivalent to the amount of $50,000 and an additional amount of $7,000 to each child under the age of 21 but not exceeding four children.

The amount usually is higher if the death is covered by a Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA).

Every labor dispute for monetary claims is a David and Goliath battle as it involves two opposing parties: the seafarer (or his heirs) on one side and the employer on the other.

As the employer does not hesitate to harness the company’s immense resources to limit its liability, the claims process has become more litigious, allowing employers to question how the seafarers’ fate and misfortunes are work-related.

For disability or death to be compensable before and under the 1996 POEA contract, it was sufficient that the seafarer suffered injury or illness during the term of his employment. The cause of illness or death is immaterial.

Deaths or injuries need only to occur during the seafarer’s employment, which begins at the time of his departure at the point of hire and ends on his return to the said point upon the end of the contract.

However, through the lobbying of the principals and their manning agencies, the restrictive clause “work-related” was added under Section 20 (B) of the 2000 POEA SEC to limit their liabilities.

The 2000 POEA SEC defined “work-related injury” as “injury resulting in disability or death arising out of and in the course of employment” and “work-related illness” as “any sickness resulting to disability or death as a result of an occupational disease listed under Section 32-A of the contract.”

Being included in the list is not enough, since the following conditions must still be satisfied: (a) the work must involve the risks described; (b) the disease was contracted as a result of his exposure to the described risks; (c) the disease was contracted within a period of exposure and under such other factors necessary to contract it; and (d) there was no notorious negligence on the part of the seafarer. These same conditions were reiterated in the 2010 POEA SEC.

Two elements must concur for the death to be compensable. First, that the injury or illness (that caused the death) must be work-related; and second, that the cause must have existed during the term of the  employment contract. The first requirement appeared in the 2000 and 2010 POEA SEC but is absent in the 1996 version.

The heirs are given the burden of proving that a death is work related, which turned to be very disadvantageous on their part in terms of presentation of proofs.

The perilous nature of their work, however, must be considered in determining the proper benefits to be awarded which, at the very least, should approximate the risks they brave on board the vessel every single day (Seagull Maritime Corp. v. Dee, 520 SCRA 109).

The Supreme Court stressed in Wallem Maritime Services Inc. v. NLRC, (318 SCRA 623) that the POEA contract is designed primarily for the protection and benefit of Filipino seafarers in the pursuit of their employment on board
ocean-going vessels.

Its beneficent provisions must be construed and applied fairly, reasonably and liberally in favor or for the benefit of the seafarers for these to be fully carried into effect.

If construed otherwise, it would not only transgress prevailing constitutional policy and deride the bearings of relevant case law but also result in a travesty of fairness and an indifference to social justice. (Canuel v. Magsaysay Maritime, GR 190161 October 13, 2014).

Atty. Gorecho heads the seafarers’ division of the Sapalo Velez Bundang Bulilan law offices. For comments, send an e-mail to  info@sapalovelez.com or call 0917-5025808 or 0908-8665786.


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