What About the Families of Our Missing Seafarers?

The start of this year has not been very fortunate for the Filipino seafaring industry as it has been struck by two very unfortunate incidents that saw the loss and sinking of two vessels both with Filipino crew members on board. These are, unfortunately, no longer unusual for us as we have almost gotten used to these sorts of news over the last several years. As a result of these tragedies, some of our Filipino seafarers have either perished or gone missing.


However, while the State mandates compensation in the form of death benefits and disability benefits, the family of a worker who has been missing under circumstances which make his or her death likely – just like when a seafarer is lost at sea – receives nothing until he or she is presumed dead under the law.


But what do we mean when we say “presumed dead under the law”? Article 391 of our Civil Code clearly provides, “The following shall be presumed dead for all purposes, including the division of the estate among the heirs: (1) A person on board a vessel lost during a sea voyage, or an aeroplane which is missing, who has not been heard of for four years since the loss of the vessel or aeroplane.” This means that before the lapse of four years counted from the time of the loss of the vessel, the law treats a missing seafarer as just that – missing. At present, missing seafarers are not entitled to any compensation benefit.


This glaring flaw in our system of laws is what we intend to correct by pushing for a bill providing for benefits to the families of seafarers who are missing and in danger of death, even before the lapse of four years or before they are legally presumed dead. House Bill 5558, entitled “Missing Employees Compensation Act”, aims to address the unfortunate predicament of families of seafarers who have gone missing due to work related causes under circumstances which make death likely, but not been missing long enough to be legally presumed dead. Under this proposed compensation program, families of missing workers need not wait for their missing loved ones to be legally presumed dead before they can expect compensation from the State.


Just last February 26, 2015, the Taiwanese fishing vessel Hsiang Fu Chun, along with its thirteen Filipino crew members, went missing in the middle of the South Atlantic Ocean. Less than two months before that, cargo vessel Bulk Jupiter sank off Vietnam, resulting in the death of 2 Filipino crew members, with 16 others still missing. While existing laws may be able to provide immediate compensation to the families of those who have been confirmed dead, the families of those who are still missing would still have to wait for four years before their missing relatives can be legally presumed dead. Before that, they cannot legally expect anything from the State. The least we can do is to make the families’ waiting less burdensome.


It is unfortunate enough that these families have to endure the pain and suffering of losing a loved one coupled with the emotional uncertainty of hoping for better news or moving on from the tragedy, but they would still have to figure out how to make ends meet until they are properly compensated for their loss. Under the proposed bill, the family of a missing employee shall, for each month until his or her death has been confirmed or legally presumed, be paid by the Social Security System an amount equivalent to the monthly income benefit, plus 10% for each dependent child, but not exceeding five.


It goes without saying that no law could ever erase the pain of losing a loved one, especially under circumstances where a loved one has gone missing with no confirmation of whether he is still living or already dead. But if the bill passes into law, not only can we at least mitigate the anguish and misery felt by the families of our missing seafarers, but we can also make sure that the sudden loss of income in the family can be alleviated by the State, especially when, as in most cases, the missing seafarer is the sole breadwinner in the family.