The Filipino seafarer is entitled to medical treatment at cost to the employer apart from disability benefits and sickness allowance.
Away from his family and working on board vessels sailing non-stop for weeks or months the world’s oceans, the Filpino seafarer is physically, mentally and emotionally stressed. Constantly exposed to fluctuating temperatures caused by variant weather changes of extreme hot and cold as the ships cross ocean boundaries, not to mention harsh weather conditions, the risks of his getting killed, injured or ill are high.
The employer is liable for three separate and distinct kinds of liabilities under the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration Standard Employment Contract (POEA-SEC) for any work-related illness or injury that the seafarer may have suffered during the term of the contract. In other words, employers must: (1) provide medical treatment to the seafarer at their cost; (b) pay the seafarer sickness allowance equivalent to his basic wage and (2) compensate the seafarer for his permanent total or partial disability as finally determined by the company-designated physician.
Section 20-B (2), paragraph 2, of the POEA-SEC entitles the seafarer medical treatment that is aimed at the speedy recovery of the seafarer and the restoration of his previous healthy working condition. The contract imposes on the employer the liability to provide, at its cost, for the medical treatment of the repatriated seafarer for the illness or injury that he suffered on board the vessel until the seafarer is declared fit to work or the degree of his disability is finally determined by the company-designated physician. This liability for medical expenses is conditioned upon the seafarer’s compliance with his own obligation to report to the company-designated physician within three (3) days from his arrival in the country for diagnosis and treatment.
Since the seafarer is repatriated to the country to undergo treatment, his inability to perform his sea duties would normally result in depriving him of compensation income. To address this contingency, Section 20-B (3), paragraph 1, of the POEA-SEC imposes on the employer the obligation to provide the seafarer with sickness allowance that is equivalent to his basic wage until the seafarer is declared fit to work or the degree of his permanent disability is determined by the company-designated physician. The period for the declaration should be made within the period of 120 days or 240 days, as the case may be.
Once a finding of permanent (total or partial) disability is made either within the 120-day period or the 240-day period, Section 20-B (6) of the POEA-SEC requires the employer to pay the seafarer disability benefits for his permanent total or partial disability caused by the work-related illness or injury. In practical terms, a finding of permanent disability means a permanent reduction of the earning power of a seafarer to perform future sea or on board duties; permanent disability benefits look to the future as a means to alleviate the seafarer’s financial condition based on the level of injury or illness he incurred or contracted.
The Supreme Court emphasized the separate treatment of, and the distinct considerations in, these three kinds of liabilities in the case of Javier v. Philippine Transmarine Carriers, Inc.. (G.R. No. 2014101 July 2, 2014). The evident intent of the POEA-SEC is to treat these liabilities of the employer separately and distinctly from one another by treating the different items of liability under separate paragraphs. These individual paragraphs, in turn, show the bases of each liability that are unique from the others.
Significantly, too, while Section 20 of the POEA-SEC did not expressly state that the employer’s liabilities are cumulative in nature — so as to hold the employer liable for the sickness allowance, medical expenses and disability benefits — it does not also state that the compensation and benefits are alternative or that the grant of one bars the grant of the others.
It is clear from the above that while a seafarer is not entitled to total and permanent disability benefits, this does not rule out his right to the other benefits provided for under the POEA-SEC such as reimbursement for medical expenses, sickness allowance and benefit for partial disability caused by a work-related injury.
This formulation is in keeping with the POEA’s mandate under Executive Order No. 247 to “secure the best terms and conditions of employment of Filipino contract workers and ensure compliance therewith” and to “promote and protect the well-being of Filipino workers overseas. As a labor contract, the POEA-SEC is imbued with public interest. Accordingly, its provisions must be construed fairly, reasonably and liberally in favor of the seafarer in the pursuit of his employment on board ocean-going vessels. After all, the constitutional policy accords and guarantees full protection to labor, both local and overseas.
Atty. Dennis R. Gorecho is a graduate of UP College of Law (1998) and is currently a junior partner of Sapalo Velez Bundang Bulilan (SVBB) law offices who heads the seafarers’ division. He is a speaker on nationwide paralegal seminars on seafarers rights. He is presently the executive vice president of the Maritime Law Association of the Philippines (MARLAW), and an active member of the Maritime Forum Inc. , the National Seafarers Day (NSD) committee and International Pro Bono Network. The SVBB law works hand in hand with various seafarers welfare organizations such as the Apostleship of the Seas (AOS) Philippines, Luneta Seafarers Welfare Foundation (LUSWELF) and United Filipino Seafarers (UFS) . He is a legal commentator on maritime issues on print, radio and TV. A co-anchor of the radio program Bantay OCW Usapang Marino aired over Radio Inquirer/ DZIQ every Wednesday 10:30am to 12noon. For comments, please send email at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 09175025808/ 09088665786.