In April this year, a Romanian captain died at sea and was kept in the ship’s walk-in freezer for six months because 13 countries refused to have the body unloaded. The story may no longer shock as strange things have been happening during the COVID-19 pandemic. But it raises some very disturbing questions.
Power drives the shipping world — not money, although everyone seems to be preoccupied with it. The desire for power (and control) is what really spurs the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) to issue more and more regulations for ships and crews.
The same motivating force is behind the mistreatment of seafarers by abusive ship masters and rogue shipowners; the use of cadets as unpaid labour by manning agents; the muscle-flexing by seafarer unions; and the inspection visits by the European Maritime Safety Agency (EMSA).
One can understand that the printed edition of the International Convention on Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping for Seafarers (or STCW) cannot be given for free. Like any other publisher, the International Maritime Organization (IMO) has to cover the cost of printing plus some markup for overhead expenses and profit. But why sell the electronic edition, and for a hefty £50 (USD67.16) at that?
Some seafarers are undoubtedly satisfied with their manning agents. So long as the pay is good, the vessel is seaworthy, the shipowner complies with the Maritime Labour Convention, and one’s contract is renewed when it ends, what is there to complain about? Surely, though, seafarers deserve much more. The following, in my view, are seven things that make for an ideal manning agent:
The ship of fools is an allegory first used by Plato in Book VI of his Republic to highlight the problems of governance in a system that is not based on expert knowledge. The ship has a dysfunctional crew, each one pretending to be smart and trying to play captain. Well, there’s a brand new ship of fools with various characters on the deck of seafarers’ rights and welfare. Take a look:
Many crewing agencies in Manila regularly use cadets as unpaid office flunkeys and even as personal servants, in some cases for months on end. They are the main guilty parties in this egregious exploitation of young aspiring ship officers. But some others are complicit.
Any person with some ethical sense would say that the use of cadets as unpaid office flunkeys and domestic servants is wrong. But for most folks in maritime Manila, the practice is both normal and right.
Some even insist that it is beneficial to the cadets, like the manning executive who once declared, “You have to break them in”. He sounded as though he was talking about of a new pair of shoes that need to be loosened so it can be worn comfortably by the owner. Fair enough, but why subject the cadets to indefinite periods of servitude before deploying them oversas as apprentice-officers?
In Manila, cadets who serve as unpaid labour for manning agencies in the guise of internship are called “utility”. I have always found the use of this term both amusing and vexing. It sounds quirky and is one example of how Filipinos sometimes misuse or bastardise the English language.
Who in this age of tweeting is not familiar with a hashtag? This sequence of characters preceded by a hash or pound sign (#) is used by milliions on Twitter and other social media sites to identify digital content on a specific topic. Hashtags have become as ubiquitous as coffee houses, their presence felt even outside the internet (read the article The ‘hashtag’: a new word or a new rule? by Dr. Paola Maria Calaffi).
The following are hashtags which I have created to focus attention on the plight of seafarers. Some are so maverick, so irreverent, that you are not likely to encounter them on social media. But perhaps someday you will — on my Twitter and LinkedIn accounts.
The maritime landscape in Manila would not be complete without the cadets who work as unpaid labour for the manning agencies and some seafarer unions. Individually and collectively, these cadets are commonly called ‘utility’. The term is descriptive of the many ways these aspiring ship officers are utilised. However, I would rather use the phrase ‘cadet flunkey’ — flunkey, meaning a person who does menial or trivial work for another, especially with unquestioning obedience. It is less demeaning and more accurate.
The following are some of the tasks cadet flunkeys are made to perform in exchange for being deployed eventually as apprentice–officers. I have seen worse, but these would–be ship officers never complain. Understanbly so, since the 12-month shipboard apprenticeship is a requisite for graduation in Philippine maritime schools.
The following is an updated version of an article that was originally posted on Marine Café Blog on 20th July 2021.
It’s interesting how the plight of seafarers can be encapsulated in a single word. The following list of transitive verbs (action words with a direct object) provides good examples. The words tell some of the ways seafarers are exploited or mistreated. I have defined each one with specific reference to seafarers, illustrating how the word is used with an example sentence.
To call maritime cadets ‘utility’ as most folks in Manila do is dehumanising. The term ‘maritime flunkey’ or ‘cadet flunkey’, which I prefer, is more benign. However, it still does not give a true picture of the young aspiring ship officers who serve — for months on end in many cases — as unpaid labour for the local manning agencies and seafarer unions.
Slaves. Conscripted labour. These more accurately describe the cadets in question. The following excerpts from my e-book, ‘Close Encounters in Maritime Manila’, should shock anyone who has not become jaded and who sees these exploited youths as human beings, not as mere objects to be used.