It seems utterly wrong to order maritime cadets to buy pizza and run other errands for company staff. But in Manila, it’s standard practice. Manning agencies and even unions use young aspiring ship officers as unpaid office help, with the promise of putting them on board their first vessel. The local term for them is ‘utility.’ That sounds bloody cold, so we prefer to call them ‘flunkeys’.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines flunkey as ‘a person who performs relatively menial tasks for someone else, especially obsequiously.’ The term originally meant a liveried or uniformed manservant or footman and is said to date back to the mid-18th century. Whatever its origin, the appellation is derogatory. Yet, what else would you call maritime cadets who are treated like servants and made to work without pay, sometimes for months on end?
On many occasions, we’ve had a chance to converse with the flunkeys, listen to their life stories and see them in action. Here’s a partial list of the things they usually to do on a daily basis:
serve as doorman
maintain visitors’ log
prepare and serve coffee to visitors
operate the Xerox machine
help type correspondence
file office documents
deposit or withdraw money from the bank
buy snacks or lotto tickets for office staff
act as waiter when managers have lunch in the office
act as usher or waiter for company or associatiion events
clean the toilet
tidy up the office before and after office hours
deliver documents and packages
scout for ship officers in the Luneta Park
drive for the boss
drive for the boss’ wife and children
The flunkey system is an offshoot of the lack of shipboard apprentice slots. It’s also a symptom of a culture that regards seafarers as mere commodities. Coolies are at least paid subsistence wages; Manila’s maritime flunkeys work for nothing except the promise of a shipboard posting. That some of them receive food and transportation allowances does not make the practice less exploitative – or less demeaning to the merchant marine profession.
These young men and women are the ship officers of tomorrow. They deserve a kinder fate. ~Barista Uno
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