De la Cruz vs. Maersk Filipinas Crewing, Inc

G.R. No. 172038. April 14, 2008

FACTS:

Respondent Elite Shipping A.S. hired petitioner Dante D. de la Cruz as third engineer for the vessel M/S Arktis Morning through its local agency in the Philippines, co-respondent Maersk Filipinas Crewing Inc. The contract of employment was for a period of nine months, starting April 19, 1999, with a monthly basic salary of US$1,004.00 plus other benefits.

Chief engineer Norman Per Nielsen, twice in a logbook entry, expressed his dissatisfaction over petitioner’s performance. Due to this, petitioner is discharge according to CBA article 1 (7) where in several occasions, he is not qualified for the position as 3rd engineer onboard this vessel.

Petitioner thereafter filed a complaint for illegal dismissal with claims for the monetary equivalent of the unexpired portion of his contract, damages and attorney’s fees in the National Labor Relations Commission (NLRC).

The labor arbiter (LA) ruled that petitioner was dismissed without just cause and due process as the logbook entry (which respondents claimed to be the first notice to petitioner) was vague. 

The NLRC upheld the LA’s finding of illegal dismissal but deleted the award of moral and exemplary damages.

CA reversed the findings of LA and NLRC, and deemed the logbook entries to be sufficient compliance with the first notice requirement of the law. It reasoned that a probationary employee may be dismissed at anytime during the probationary period for failure to live up to the expectations of the employer.

ISSUE:

(a) WON the petitioner is illegally dismissed.

(b) WON the petitioner was still in a probationary status thus provisions of Article 1 (7) of the CBA (which allows the master to terminate the contract of one under probation by merely serving a written notice 14 days prior to the contemplated discharge) is correctly applied.

HELD:

(a) YES. An employer has the burden of proving that an employee’s dismissal was for a just cause. Failure to show this necessarily means that the dismissal was unjustified and therefore illegal. Furthermore, not only must the dismissal be for a cause provided by law, it should also comply with the rudimentary requirements of due process, that is, the opportunity to be heard and to defend oneself.

These requirements are of equal application to cases of Filipino seamen recruited to work on board foreign vessels. Procedural due process requires that a seaman must be given a written notice of the charges against him and afforded a formal investigation where he can defend himself personally or through a representative before he can be dismissed and disembarked from the vessel. The employer is bound to furnish him two notices: (1) the written charge and (2) the written notice of dismissal (in case that is the penalty imposed). This is in accordance with the POEA Revised Standard Employment Terms and Conditions Governing the Employment of Filipino Seafarers on Board Ocean-Going Vessels (POEA Revised Standard Employment Terms and Conditions).

The logbook entries were too general and vague, and cannot even reach any conclusion on whether or not respondents had a valid cause to discharge petitioner. Not only was petitioner’s dismissal procedurally flawed, it was also without just cause.

(b) NO. As early as Brent School, Inc. v. Zamora, It was already held that seafarers are not covered by the term regular employment, as defined under Article 280 of the Labor Code. Instead, they are considered contractual employees whose rights and obligations are governed primarily by the POEA Standard Employment Contract for Filipino Seamen (POEA Standard Employment Contract), the Rules and Regulations Governing Overseas Employment, and, more importantly, by Republic Act No. 8042, otherwise known as The Migrant Workers and Overseas Filipinos Act of 1995. Even the POEA Standard Employment Contract itself mandates that in no case shall a contract of employment concerning seamen exceed 12 months.

It is an accepted maritime industry practice that the employment of seafarers is for a fixed period only. The Court acknowledges this to be for the mutual interest of both the seafarer and the employer. Seafarers cannot stay for a long and indefinite period of time at sea as limited access to shore activity during their employment has been shown to adversely affect them. Furthermore, the diversity in nationality, culture and language among the crew necessitates the limitation of the period of employment.

While the petitioner was a registered member of the Associated Marine Officers and Seamen’s Union of the Philippines which had a CBA with respondent Elite Shipping A.S. providing for a probationary period of employment, the CBA cannot override the provisions of the POEA Standard Employment Contract. The law is read into, and forms part of, contracts. And provisions in a contract are valid only if they are not contrary to law, morals, good customs, public order or public policy.

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