By INA ALLECO R. SILVERIO
MANILA — Seafarers are joining the nationally-coordinated protests against the Benigno Aquino III presidency on June 23 as Aquino delivers his third state of the nation address (SONA) on the said date at the House of Representatives. They will be joining the contingent of the organization of overseas Filipino workers and their families Migrante International.
Migrante International chairman Garry Martinez said they are currently handling several cases of seafarers who have suffered labor rights abuses. He said Migrante is looking into the possibility of helping the seafarers file administrative and criminal charges against their ship companies and the manning agency.
The seafarers, June Parina, Maurecio Parel, Jesher Salvacion, Francis Dave Clementir, Mark Hinola, Khalid John Valenzuela, Junuel Blando, John dela Gubaton, Joji Hayahay and Felizardo Tono, were all recruited by JMP Polaris Navigation Inc. and deployed to work for two Taiwan-based ship companies, Meng Hao Fishery Co. Ltd. and Meng Hao Fishery Co. Ltd.
They were all led to believe that they would be working for good pay because they were promised a monthly salary of $350 each besides the $105 fixed overtime pay, as well as a separate monthly food allowance.
Just before they boarded the ship, however, they were forced to sign a new contract wherein the salaries were lowered to $250 for two years on a fixed schedule. They also discovered soon enough that the manpower agency that recruited them as represented by a certain Annabelle Palma David was unscrupulous when it came to contracts: the original contracts they signed were essentially and unilaterally voided and substituted with another that had substandard provisions. In the meantime, they were also illegally charged with placement fees amounting to P15,000 ($357).They were also forced to pay P2,000 ($48) to P2,500 ($56) for their medical examination.
Initially disregarding the shocking changes in their contracts, the seafarers persisted in continuing their new employment. They had applied for deck cadet, mess men and engine cadet positions, but upon boarding, they were incredulous to discover that they were actually hired to work as fishermen. Their salaries were also significantly slashed, and they received only P7,000 monthly ($167).
They were also made to work at least 14 hours a day, and their meals were scanty. They were forced to scavenge for food, receiving so little for their meals that they stole dog food and drank rusty water from the engines to survive.
The work itself was extremely difficult, also exacerbated by the fact that they did not have prior experience in it. They suffered serious injuries, but were denied proper medical treatment. When wounded, it was the ship captain who stitched their wounds without anesthesia or proper medical facilities.
After suffering months at sea, the 12 seafarers were finally and recently repatriated back to the Philippines.
Horrors at sea
“We became fishermen against our will. They made us work like slaves in inhumane conditions. We had poor accommodations and had no sufficient food or water,” said Parina, leader of seafarers from Jui Wun Fishery Co. Ltd.
On April 15, Parina was attacked by four Vietnamese shipmates. He suffered stab wounds in the head, back and face.
“They have no medical facilities inside the ship. They did not give me medicine. Ship authorities promised to give me medical treatment but I received none,” he said.
It was only on June 18, when their ship embarked on Taiwan, that Parina was able to call David of JMP Polaris Navigation Inc. The agency, however, did not do anything.
“When I was finally rescued and turned over to the agency, they had me detained in their ‘monkey house’ for three days,” he said. Parina was only able to return home with the help of his father who paid the manning agency $1,000 to process his repatriation.
Another one of the seafarers, Felizardo Herrera Tono Jr., was also attacked by Indonesian shipmates on April 14. He was hacked in the neck and arms. “I almost died because of my injuries. I lost so much blood,” he said.
He sought help from his shipmates who immediately reported the incident to the ship captain. “But instead of stopping at the nearest port, we went on fishing. Because of my insistence, the ship captain finally relented and stitched me up himself.”
Mark Hinola, leader of the seafarers from Meng Hao Fishery Co. Ltd., called David to inform the agency of their condition but the company official said they would only help them if they signed a resignation letter stating that they would not file legal charges against the agency. He said the agency appeared to be in connivance with the ship company who threatened to have them jailed in Taiwan if they did not sign the resignation letter.
It was then that he decided to call 911 when their ship neared Singapore.
“I told the operator that we were being maltreated. He then referred me to the Singapore coast guard who immediately rescued us,” he said.
The 12 seafarers recently got back and have filed cases before the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA) and National Labor Relations Commission NLRC). They are demanding the suspension of the license of JMP Polaris Navigation Inc., their back wages and other benefits.
Migrante’s Martinez said the harrowing story of the 12 seafarers are only a fraction of what Filipino seafarers and sea-based OFWs suffer while at sea.
“There is clear government neglect in their case. The manning agency in question is a notorious one but it continues to be able to operate under the noses of the POEA and other concerned government agencies,” he said.
A safe environment for seamen
Only last May 16, Philippine permanent representative to the International Maritime Organization (IMO) Ambassador Enrique Manalo appealed to to ship owners and the governments of countries whose flags they fly at a ministerial meeting on combating piracy. During the IMO meeting in London, Manalo said that ship owners and governments should work together to ensure a safe working environment for their seamen.
“It is the responsibility of the shipping companies and flag states to protect their seafarers,” he said. Manalo said that on the part of the Philippine government, it continued to advocate for the best management practices (BMPs) drawn up by the commercial shipping sector as the primary defense against pirate attacks.
Based on data from the Philippine Overseas Employment Agency (POEA), a total of 330,424 Filipino seafarers were deployed abroad in 2009. The money sent home by seamen abroad has since 2006 increased from $1.9 billion to $3.8 billion in 2010.