We’ve been prodding ourselves all year round to believe that 2010 is the Year of the Seafarer. Didn’t the International Maritime Organization (IMO) say so? But we give up. On a recent trip to a mall in Manila, we saw a lad in cadet uniform carrying a large box of pizza. They’re everywhere: would-be ship officers who serve as flunkeys (unpaid office help) in manning companies, running errands for the managers and staff. The exploitation of seafarers in the world’s crewing capital begins even before they board their first vessel.

The flunkeys, however, would be the last to see the system as exploitative. They’re like sheep. In light of the scarcity of shipboard apprentice and entry-level slots, these college-educated young men would do anything to go to sea. The manning agents and maritime unions explain away the practice by saying it builds positive work attitudes and instills discipline in aspiring seafarers. Maybe so, but we’re hard put to understand how making them serve coffee to visitors and clean the toilets will help transform them into fine ship officers.

As we watched the flunkey with the pizza box, the words of IMO Secretary-General Efthimios Mitropoulos echoed in our mind: In selecting the “Year of the Seafarer” theme, our intention was also to use it as an excellent opportunity to reassure those who labour at the “sharp end” of the industry – the seafarers themselves – that those of us who work in other areas of the maritime community, and yet whose actions have a direct bearing on seafarers’ everyday lives, understand the extreme pressures they face and approach our tasks with genuine interest and concern for them and their families.

Hollow words, if you ask our opinion. Yet, the ITF and the Church-based seafarers’ welfare organisations all went along and joined the global chorus that sang praises to the seafarer. They even threw a party in June for the lads and their families at Manila’s Luneta Park – that veritable marketplace where crewing agents solicit for officers and ratings to export them like so many heads of sheep. ~Barista Uno