It sounds ironic, but many Third World seafarers make themselves vulnerable to exploitation because of their mindset and outlook. This does not justify, of course, the actions of those who abuse them. However, there are certain attitudes that could turn a seafarer into a ‘patsy’ — a term defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “a person who is easily taken advantage of, especially by being cheated or blamed for something.” The following are five such attitudes.

Desperation to go to sea

Some are so desperate to sail that they are willing to do anything to get a shipboard placement. Thus, cadets will suffer the indignity of serving as maritime flunkeys (unpaid office workers or domestic servants) for manning agencies and unions. Some seafarers will accede to demands for money from crewing managers. Others may even try to obtain fake certificates to get a job.

Fear of being sent home and getting blacklisted

Blacklisting of seafarers who report abuses and malpractices to the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) is still common practice. As a result, a ship’s crew may keep silent on serious problems on board (e.g., double payrolling) for fear of retaliation from the master or from their manning agency .

Blind obedience to foreign ship officers

Third World seafarers can be super subservient to foreign ship officers. This can have fatal consequences as happened in the case of the chemical tanker Bow Mariner, which exploded and sank in the Atlantic Ocean on 28th February 2004. The U.S. Coast Guard investigation report on the incident said about the Filipino crew: “This (Filipinos’) lack of technical knowledge and fear of the senior officers explains why the crew did not question the master’s unsafe order to open all of the empty tanks; they either did not know about the danger or were not inclined to question the master’s order… Able Seaman Ronguillo stated that orders from the Greeks were like ‘words from God’.”

Lack of self-confidence

For seafarers, the lack of self-confidence can be as bad as arrogance. A manning executive in Manila once said that he was tired of hearing Filipino seafarers say during a job interview: “I just come from a poor family”. The statement may be intended to solicit sympathy, but it does nothing to boost one’s self-image. How can seafarers who are not sure of themselves fight for their rights?

Believing that a situation cannot be changed or that it is ‘normal’

It’s true that life is unfair. It is also true that some things cannot be changed. However, it does not help seafarers to believe that there is little or nothing they can do to change a bad situation. Such a mindset leads to the perpetuation of malpractices. Many Filipino seafarers, for example, just grin and bear it when dishonest manning agents short-change them on their remittances. To make matters worse, the unions have failed to condemn this decades-old forex scam.

A wrong mindset can be as enslaving as opioid medication. Time for seafarers to break the chains. To borrow the words of Jamaican singer-songwriter Bob Marley in his ‘Redemption Song’:

Emancipate yourself from mental slavery,
None but ourselves can free our minds.

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