How many out of every 10 Filipino ship officers would do whatever they are told by their foreign captain? I once posed this question to a former chairman of the state marine licensing board in Manila, himself a licensed master mariner. Without hesitating in the least, he answered: “Eight out of 10.”

That is a pretty high number, but it may not be far from the truth. On the whole, Filipino seafarers tend to be compliant and uncomplaining. Unscrupulous manning agents steal millions annually from their dollar remittances. Yet, most seafarers seem to accept such thievery as part of life. Save for Marine Café Blog, has anyone raised the issue on Twitter or in the various maritime groups on Facebook?

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Such an attitude of resignation is not surprising. Seafarers are trained from their cadet days to respect authority and obey orders. Fearful of losing their jobs, many dare not complain against abuses. Seafarers live in a culture of subservience that continues to be strenghtened by the use of cadets as unpaid labour and the common practice of blacklisting crew members who report to the ITF (International Transport Workers’ Federation).

In my e-book, Close Encounters in Maritime Manila, I wrote about a cadet from a leading maritime school who served as an apprentice on board a Japanese vessel. Excerpts from Chapter 15:  ‘Foreigners and the Natives’:

The Japanese captain turned out to be a tyrant who insulted and mistreated the Filipino crew. Unable to stand it any longer, the apprentice wrote a letter to the shipping company’s head office in Tokyo. In it, he narrated a litany of the captain’s misdeeds. His revelations caused such a ruckus that the Japanese captain had the whistle-blower repatriated in no time.

Once back in Manila, the cadet was summoned by his manning agency and got the scolding of his life.

“You son of a bitch!” the agency president bellowed at the young man. “I swear that you will never sail again, not even on a banca (a type of outrigger boat common in the Philippines and Indonesia).”

The outburst was understandable. No manning agent wants to look bad in the eyes of his foreign principal. Never mind if this means siding with an abusive Japanese captain.

The story did have a happy ending. The cadet managed to sail again as an apprentice officer through another agency and go on to a successful career at sea. How many seafarers have the moral courage of this young man? How many would rather keep silent even when they are the victims?

~ Barista Uno

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