by Douglas B. Stevenson, Esq.
Director, Center for Seafarers' Rights
The Seamen's Church Institute
The Philippines Overseas Employment Administration (POEA) recently revised its standard agreement for Filipino seafarers that has been in effect since 1997. The POEA standard agreement, entitled Standard Terms And Conditions Governing The Employment Of Filipino Seafarers On-Board Ocean-Going Vessels sets the minimum standards acceptable to the POEA for Filipino seafarers employed on foreign flag ocean-going vessels. It became effective for all agreements signed after June 28, 2000.
The POEA standard agreement is important to Filipino seafarers because most of them are employed under it. The only Filipinos who are not covered by this agreement are those who have a collective bargaining agreement that has been approved by the POEA that meets or exceeds the agreement’s minimum requirements. Any changes to the agreement must be approved by the POEA. Although the POEA standard agreement applies only to Filipino seafarers, it is interesting for all seafarers because it may reveal trends in the maritime industry that could affect those from other countries.
If the newly revised POEA standard agreement signals a trend in the maritime industry, the trend is an unfortunate one for seafarers. Although there are changes that affect both employers and seafarers, new obligations for employers tend to restate existing obligations under maritime law. The changes affecting seafarers tend to erode their rights. For example:
- The agreement specifically requires employers to provide a seaworthy ship, take reasonable measures to prevent accidents and provide safety equipment – obligations that are already required by the general maritime law and international conventions.
- The agreement adds a new duty for seafarers and masters to follow the Code of Ethics for Seafarers, but the code is not attached to the contract nor is it readily available. There is no code of ethics for employers mentioned.
- The agreement now requires seafarers to comply with “company policy” - whatever that may be. This provision gives employers the unregulated right to create and enforce their policies that have not been reviewed by the POEA or seafarers and which might be unreasonable, unfair or unjust.
- Some of the worst changes are limitations on seafarers’ centuries old rights to medical care for all injuries and illnesses incurred while employed on the ship (maintenance and cure). Under the new agreement, employers are responsible for paying only for seafarers’ occupational injuries and diseases that were job related. Compensation for injuries, illnesses and disability is limited by the agreement.
- Seafarers must disclose their past medical conditions, disabilities and medical histories. If they do not, they risk disqualification from compensation and benefits, termination from employment and punitive sanctions.
- The new agreement adds several new offenses to its already long table of offenses and penalties for seafarers. (There is no corresponding list of offenses and penalties for employers.) Some of the offenses are unconsciously vague and clearly designed to deter seafarers from participating in legitimate collective actions. Some of the new offenses are: “creating trouble outside the vessel’s premises,” “concerted action to breach approved contracts,” and “any activity which tends to destroy harmonious relationship of the company.”
For centuries, maritime nations’ courts and governments have provided seafarers special protections under maritime law, recognizing that seafarers are vulnerable to abuse and exploitation because of their unequal bargaining position with relation to their employers. It is astonishing that in today’s environment, where seafarers are increasingly abused, exploited and abandoned, and where employers can hide behind layers of corporate ownership and flee through jurisdictional cracks, that the POEA would amend their standard agreement to provide more protections for employers and discard centuries old seafarers’ rights.