Enrolment in Philippine maritime colleges has been declining since 2014. Government figures show that it dropped to 82,205 in school year 2017–2018 from 119,387 the previous school year. A 31 per cent decrease by any measure is significant. Yet, it does not seem to have diminished the national obsession with seafaring. As I noted in my 2018 e-book, Close Encounters in Maritime Manila:
GOING TO SEA as a merchant sailor has become a paradigm for many young Filipinos. A lad from a small town or village who becomes a ship captain is regarded as the beau idéal of the successful life and a prize catch for marriageable girls.
Maritime schools perpetuate the ideal; they need to if their cash registers are to keep ringing. So do returning seamen with their tales of fair–skinned damsels and carousing at night with dollars instead of pesos in their pockets. The siren call of greenbacks and fabulous foreign lands is seducing even the women.
Undoubtedly, many have turned their lives around by working at sea. I once had coffee with a fairly young Filipino captain who fretted that he had already spent 4 million pesos ( $77,732 in current terms) for his unfinished new house. Good for him, I thought. After retiring from journalism, I still live in a rented apartment.
Such success stories, I am inclined to believe, do not outweigh the countless tales of woe from Filipino seafarers. Just to obtain a bachelor’s degree from a maritime college is tough. The cadet has to serve as an apprentice officer on board an ocean-going vessel for 12 months. No apprentice time at sea, no diploma. Many have ended up working in Manila as waiters, security guards and even janitors.
Just to obtain a bachelor’s degree from a maritime college is tough… No apprentice time at sea, no diploma. Many have ended up working in Manila as waiters, security guards, and even janitors.
To get a shipboard training slot, many slave away as unpaid labour in manning agencies and maritime unions. Buying pizza and doing other errands for the office staff is demeaning. But the cadet can at least look forward to boarding a vessel, even if it takes months of waiting.
Life is not sweet after graduation. The starry-eyed young ship officer soon finds out that part of his monthly dollar remittance goes to the pockets of his manning agent. Complaining is futile. Cheating on the foreign exchange rate is considered normal practice, and nobody is doing anything about the decades-old scam. Throughout his career, the ship officer will have to contend with others kinds of shenanigans. The predators in maritime Manila are myriad, and they come in all shapes and sizes.
All this is not a prescription for shunning a career at sea. The merchant marine is an honourable profession, and it can be quite rewarding. Those who wish to join it only have to brace themselves for the unexpected.
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