With the world so reliant on shipping, it seems fairly obvious that seafarers make the world the place it is. Given that, you would think crew are respected and revered as a result…alas the truth is rather different.
Without seafarers bravely, tirelessly and skilfully making shipping work, then the world as we know it would grind to a halt. This is a fact…but sadly it all too often seems to escape the attention of the wider populace.
It seems that globalisation has reached such engrained proportions that people are astonished that there are large gaps between countries. Very wet, very big gaps – between the places making, mining or drilling things and the places where people use them.
While ignorance can be expected and perhaps even forgiven across society, given that there is a blindness, and even ignorance about what goes on at sea. Sadly this seems to also spread to the governments and administrations which really should know and do better.
All too often people show a lack of knowledge, about shipping and seafarers. Sadly this means that it is increasingly difficult for seafarers to be valued and to receive the props they deserve.
A NEW IDENTITY
Sometimes it is not words which show how seafarers are seen or perceived, but actions. An extremely troubling sight was always the giant queues of Filipino seafarers snaking around the offices of the Maritime Industry Authority (MARINA) in Manila.
Seafarers had to cut short their leave, and those who lived outside the capital, they had to make special (and costly) arrangements just to process their documentation. This was something which sent out a fairly negative message.
Thankfully it seems that things are changing – the Philippine government has announced it is set to develop a universal identification system for seafarers. An announcement which sent our sister Crewtoo website into near meltdown when it was announced, as so many people were searching for news on the announcement.
In a statement, the government said the new ID system will be “acceptable to all government agencies and port States in compliance with relevant conventions.” The development of the universal ID system for seafarers was formalized by Resolution No. 13, Series of 2016, of the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration’s (POEA) Governing Board.
Under the resolution, the POEA will be coordinating with the Maritime Industry Authority (MARINA) to develop an online registration system for seafarers by September 15, 2016.
As part of the changeover to this new system, the agency will conduct an information dissemination campaign to Filipino seafarers and licensed manning agencies to create awareness of the benefits of the online registration system.
At present, Filipino seafarers are given a Seafarer’s Registration Certificate with ID numbers, but also have a Seafarer Identification and Record Book (SIRB) which serves as the Filipino seafarers’ identification document while on board ship.
It is hoped the new system will streamline not just the technical issues, but will allow seafarers to apply online and to be able to manage and access all the information they need to work.
QUIRKS OF THE SYSTEM
It is not just the issue of Filipino seafarer documents and identification which is going through change, there are improvements being made to the way in which seafarers are legally protected too.
The Philippine legal system has been criticised in the past for what has been deemed, according to the UK P&I Club, a “failure to look after one of the nation’s key exports, namely its seafarers”.
The Club claims that despite the immense contribution to the world’s ocean-going merchant shipping fleet and their home country, Filipino seafarers experience continuing frustrations within the Philippine legal system – in the form of “ambulance-chasing” lawyers.
These lawyers often force crew into the claims system – one which provides only minimal payments outlined in a modest schedule of benefits published by the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA). Critics of the system states that a standard POEA employment contract limits a maimed crew member to a rather paltry payout, and one which the lawyers take from too.
For example, a seafarer who loses their entire hand, by amputation between the wrist and elbow joint, in a gruesome work-related accident, can get a total maximum benefit of only US$29,480. Such an amount hardly compensates the crew member for his past and future lost wages, pain and suffering, mental anguish and disfigurement for the rest of his life.
The low levels of payout are concerning enough – but there is worse. Once a crew member or their family receive a death or disability payment, they waive the right to file a claim against the shipowner. This is in violation of the International Labor Organization (ILO), and is something that clearly needs to change – but thankfully the new Seafarers’ Protection Act has entered force.
The SPA is designed to protect Filipino seafarers and their families from the unscrupulous practices of lawyers came into force on May 21 this year, and finally can deliver the protection that seafarers need.
Under the new law, any individual or group – whether lawyers or not – found to be soliciting directly or via agents will be imprisoned for one to two years and/or fined. In addition, legal fees are now capped at 10% of the total amount awarded.
The new legal protection means Filipino seafarers and their families should now be protected from losing up to 60% of their contractual compensation entitlements due to the unscrupulous practices of shyster lawyers.
It is also hoped the new law should also reduce the number of spurious claims being encouraged by such lawyers. Making it easier to legitimate claims to be heard and dealt with, and hopefully also improving the standing of seafarers once more.
It is not just in the Philippines where the view of the authorities has an effect on the life of seafarers. The same is true in India too – and a recent ruling on tax breaks could be about to decimate the profession.
Until recently, Indian crew who spent more than six months at sea had enjoyed similar benefits to non-resident Indians. This made going to sea far more attractive – there were monetary benefits to the profession, and this was immensely significant.
Now, however, following an income tax tribunal in Kolkata that could all be set to change. The Tax authorities are seeking to remove the “non-resident” breaks, which alone would be bad enough. They are also looking at taking tax income from the previous six years.
This is something that could bankrupt Indian seafarers – and it would also have a massive impact on whether people choose to go to sea at all. It could well start to price Indian seafarers out of the market if they have to pay tax om up to 30% of their salaries. Unions are fighting the ruling, but it could have a devastating effect on the profession, and of the seafarers who work so hard to keep trade flowing.
It seems that there is positive change coming for Filipino seafarers – and being able to use technology to process their documents is a major step forward, and being protected from the worst excesses of “ambulance chaser” lawyers is also massively important. Any satisfaction though is tempered with the concern that Indian seafaring could be about to decimated by the governments new tax demands.