Broken at sea: Many work in dangerous conditions with little recourse

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Yet a sailor’s life is at best, but a mixture of a little good with much evil, and a little pleasure with much pain. – Maritime Lawyer Richard Henry Dana, written in his diary in the 1830 on a voyage to Cape Horn to California.

The perils of being a seafarer are nothing new. Since Homer’s “The Odyssey,” seamen’s sagas on the high seas have been well documented – suicides, deaths, injuries and abandonment at sea – all which continue today.

Finding out exactly how many injuries and deaths occur each year is difficult in part because of reporting compliance. According to the International Maritime Organization, in a 12 month period from 2015-2016, there were 206 cases of injuries reported, of which 86 percent were considered serious.

Recognizing the lawless nature of the open waters and the need to protect the world’s seaman, the global community has agreed on various laws and regulations, some in place for centuries.

For nearly a hundred years, US law has guaranteed various rights for all seafarers including the right to medical care, food and shelter. Under the Merchant Marine Act of 1920, also known as the Jones Act, seamen are entitled to compensation for injuries suffered due to negligence by their employers. However, in the past 15 years the Jones Act has been sidelined by some federal courts in favor the enforcement of arbitration agreements.

Some injuries, negligence and wage dispute cases that would have been litigated in a courtroom are now being heard in private arbitration hearings all over the world, where the compensation can be a fraction of what may be granted by a US jury.

There is ongoing concern among seafarers advocacy groups that the use of arbitration clauses and flags of convenience are undermining sailors’ rights, including maintenance and cure, or medical care, which is guaranteed under federal and international law.

For Filipino sailors, who make up a quarter of all seafarers, their government requires them to arbitrate in the Philippines. The Philippine arbitration system does not allow a seafarer to sue for negligence; there is only compensation for sustained injuries and medical treatment. A compensation chart lists the dollar amount injured seafarers can receive, with the highest amount being $60,000 USD.

Many workers are injured on the job. Here are some of their stories.

Lito Asignacion

On October 26, 2010, Lito Asignacion became injured while working on a cargo vessel in New Orleans. He received third degree burns when a steam condenser malfunctioned and poured hot water on him. He was burned from his nipples to his knees and requires multiple surgeries. He was sent back to the Philippines for arbitration where he received $1870, not enough to pay for the treatment he needs. He can no longer work or have children and now lives on the edge of a Manila slum.

Rodville Magbanua 

On February 7, 2015, Rodville Magbanua got a fractured skull while working inside a ship after being elbowed by another seafarer in a fight. He had to go through Spain and Egypt with a fractured skull before being flown into Manila, where his mother sold her house in order to cover the cost of the injury.

Rodville Magbanua, a Filipino seafarer, and his family are seen in their home in Manila, Philippines. (Photo: Hannah Reyes Morales).

Photographs of Rodville’s computer screen show his injuries at sea. He suffered a fractured skull while working inside a ship after being elbowed by another seafarer.

Emmanuael Navarette

On January 11, 2o14, Emmanuel Navarette was helping to secure a cruise ship’s lines to a berth at the port of St. Martin when the line snapped his leg. He was flown to Miami where his leg was amputated. His attorney had to file an emergency motion to prevent him from being pulled from his hospital bed by his employer and put on a plane back to the Philippines. His doctor pleaded to keep him in Miami instead of sending home “for no good reason.”

(Photo courtesy of Michael Winkleman) (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Potenciano Aggarao

Potenciano Aggarao was severely injured on August 13, 2008 while working aboard a car carrier. The vessel was sailing in the Chesapeake Bay when he was crushed between a deck lifting machine and a pillar on the ship. He suffered severe chest, spinal and abdominal injuries and spent weeks in ICU in Maryland undergoing several surgeries. While recovering, his employer attempted to have him repatriated back to the Philippines as per his employment contract. Fearing he would die from a lack of medical treatment in his rural home, he fought the repatriation and was allowed to rehabilitate in the US. He was forced to go through arbitration in the Philippines where he received $89,100 for his permanent disability. He’s incurred over a million dollars in medical care in the US and and is permanently paralyzed. His case was ultimately settled for a confidential amount.

(Photo courtesy Paul Hoffman) (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Ben Buenaventura

Ben Buenaventura, a career waiter with Norwegian Cruise Line, suffered catastrophic injuries on July 20, 2016 during a safety drill. A lifeboat davit fell on top of him and his co-worker, who died immediately. Buenaventura spent a month in ICU in Miami before dying on Aug. 27, 2016. Under Philippine arbitration system, his widow – also a cruise ship worker – is entitled to roughly $60,000 USD. She cannot sue for negligence or wrongful death against NCL under the terms set forth by the Philippine government.

(Photo courtesy of Michael Winkleman) (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)