A Wrecked Tuna Fleet Searches for Answers

The Philippine government has finally called off the vain search for 352 tuna fishermen who remain missing more than a month after super typhoon Pablo, known as Bopha internationally, unleashed its wrath in eastern Mindanao.

"Our operation is shifting to support and rehabilitation operations and to deliver aid to survivors," Lt. Gen. Jorge Segovia, head of Task Force Maritime Search SarGen, told a press conference in General Santos City at the bottom tip of the island.

At least 378 fishermen were reported missing several days after Pablo hit landfall, leaving an estimated 1,900 dead including the men of the missing tuna fleet. The ferocity of the storm virtually destroyed the fleet with fishing vessels valued up to P640 million (US$15,752,000). simply disappeared

That has left a long list of questions about safety, welfare for the survivors and even the future of the industry. Of the listed missing, only 18 were found alive while eight dead bodies were recovered from 51 fishing vessels from at least 10 fishing companies that were caught in the middle of the storm. Four of the fishing vessels were confirmed by survivors to have sunk at the height of the storm.

At least three Philippine Navy ships and two floating assets of the Philippine Coast Guard were involved in the search and rescue mission, including a P-3C Orion maritime surveillance aircraft from the United States Navy also dispatched to the area to help search for more survivors. The operations however failed to recover any survivors other than those rescued by passing fishing vessels early in the tragedy. It has raised serious concerns about the country's badly aging search craft, which include Vietnam War era Hu1A Huey helicopters and other planes that are demonstrably not up to the tast.

Owners of the missing fishermen are still giving cash advances to the families of the missing fishermen although one has reportedly offered a cash assistance of P50,000 (US$1,230)in exchange of a waiver and quitclaim.

Rosanna Contreras, executive secretary of the the Socsksargen Federation of Fishing and Allied Industries, said Pablo was the first typhoon encountered by fishermen from General Santos City, the epicenter of the fleet. "The scale of losses and sheer number of victims are unprecedented," she said.

The federation and the fleet owners now are acknowledging the issues that have emerged will eventually have to be addressed by all tuna fishing companies - big or small. How safe, secure and well paid are Filipino tuna fishermen?

Somehow, the industry will have to find a formula to meet labor standards such as SSS premiums, Philhealth and Pag-IBIG contributions for their fishermen.

It will take time before industry pay and inventive structures are standardized, having learned the lessons of a protest action of Filipino fishermen in Papua New Guinea that caught international attention several years back.

Some 200 fishermen from RD Ventures Inc. abandoned their fishing vessels in 2004 in protest over pay and wage structure and demanded they be paid in standard salaries received by international seafarers.

They were promptly charged with mutiny which carries the death penalty in Papua New Guinea and were only deported after the Philippine department of foreign affairs intervened. Twelve of the protesting fishermen were jailed days after their arrival in General Santos but were later released after an amicable settlement. The leaders of the protesting fishermen were however dismissed from the company.

The Philippine tuna industry has a pay scale unlike any other. Fishing crew members are, more likely than not, relatives and close friends. In an industry that counts on almost absolute loyalty to survive, it pays to have a crew composed of relatives and close friends.

"When the crew is out there in the open, fishing companies relies on the piyado (master fisherman who is also the skipper of the catcher vessel)," said Dexter Teng of TSP Marine Industries. The piyado is then tasked to recruit his own machinist and able-bodied deckhands. In turn, the piyado gets the biggest slice of the pie during balanse (balance statements after cash advances are deducted) that usually comes quarterly. The pie gets smaller in the pecking order.

A piyado can gross from a low of P700,000 to a high of P2.4 million annually on a good production year. The chief engineer gets half of the piyado’s rate. A seasoned deckhand can gross up to P300,000 although much of that is often already eaten up in cash advances.

The pay rates and incentives do not apply to all fishing companies where the industry norm of sharing system is more complicated and where accounting of production costs are oftentimes jacked up by company owners. Some of the big tuna fishers have shifted to monthly pay for their piyados, boat engineers and deckhands, enlisting them in the social security schemes and health plans. The majority of the big tuna companies now operate in countries where they have established bases like Palau, Papua New Guinea and Indonesia.

Most of those who sailed and got caught by Pablo, however, are owned by medium-sized purse seine operators. Their crews are not covered by benefits required from an employer-employer relationship as they insist that their fishermen are "industrial partners" and work on percentage basis. Their crew, too, are not entitled to overtime pay and night premiums.

When relatives of the missing fishermen trooped to the Task Force office, they demanded not only immediate action from both the government authorities and fishing companies in finding them. They also sought benefits that should be accrued them when it became clear many of fishermen may have been lost forever.

Dino Barrientos, executive director of the Umbrella Fishing and Landing Association (UMLA), said owners of fishing companies are also having sleepless nights. Aside from losing their fishing fleet, they also have to address the demands of the families of their fishermen.

In a meeting with the Socsksargen Federation of Fishing and Allied Industries, UMLA members who lost their crews said the federation will be handling the usual cash advances being given by companies involved in the tragedy to immediate families of the missing fishermen.

"It is like as if they are still out fishing and their families still are getting the usual cash advances," said Rosanna Contreras, SFFAI executive director, although the funds won’t be for long. Until when? It is an eventuality both company owners and families of the fishermen will have to come to terms.

Other than those already given and those promised, there may be nothing more the relatives can expect although the fishing companies have pledged to give priority in hiring them when they have replaced their lost vessels and resume operations.

(Edwin Espejo blogs for the Asian Correspondent. Portions of this report were carried in other stories.)