The plight of maritime cadets as utility boys

The proliferation of cadets serving as utility boys is an issue that is widely known in the maritime industry but seldom addressed.

“How will the proposed law help cadets not be taken advantage of?” is the question raised by Christian Esteban of Maritime Academy of Asia and the Pacific Bataan during the recent online public consultation on the pending Magna Carta on Filipino Seafarers organized by the office of Senator Risa Hontiveros. He is also one of the winners of the Ten Outstanding Maritime Students of the Philippines.

Esteban pointed out that although some maritime students are accepted as trainees, there are those that become utility boys or errand runners for a company first before they would be given their vessel assignment.

Aside from doing office errands, there are utility boys that also do janitorial services, while others are even instructed to do house chores as if they are “household helpers.”

Some people romanticize the issue, Esteban added, as if it is a test of character and attitude to overcome such trials.

“However, I think they forget to ask themselves, is it really justifiable for someone hired as a cadet, to be used in the office for such tasks? What is stopping the company in giving them their respective vessel assignment? Is the office really that short on manpower that they need their cadets to aid them in their daily lives?”

The education of Filipino cadets is a combination of theoretical years and shipboard training.

Cadets will initially study in their school all the required theoretical knowledge for seamanship, navigation and engineering. They will then have to take their shipboard training in a seagoing ship to study practical knowledge and skills for a minimum of 12 months. They will thereafter return to their school for the conferment of their BS degree on Marine Engineering or Marine Transportation (BSME/BSMT).

During the 2019 Maritime Education and Training conference organized by the Maritime Industry Authority, the agency presented the results of the 2018 MARINA study that shows the effectiveness of the 91 maritime schools nationwide.

The report noted that an average of only about 18 percent of enrollees manages to complete the full academic three years. Out of this 18 percent, however, only an average about 15 percent manages to obtain a BSMT/BSME degree required to do the OIC level board exam. 

Out of the yearly over 20,000 cadets from the maritime schools eligible for shipboard training, it is estimated that only around 5,000 could be absorbed on board foreign and domestic ships.

This shortage of opportunities resulted to the proliferation of cadets working as “utility boys” wherein many are under a great deal of pressure to finish their apprenticeship within the prescribed period, thus prompting them to agree to such arrangement.

With the hope that they would one day be able to board a vessel, there are utility cadets whose services to their agency surpass the 12-month required apprenticeship period, some without decent compensation.

Dr. Roderick Galam of Oxford Brookes University discussed in an article how manning agencies and utility boys/men differentially rationalize this exploitative work.  

Galam pointed out that manning agencies use it “as a technology of servitude that, through physical and verbal abuse and other techniques, enforces docility to prepare utility men for the harsher conditions on-board a ship.”

On the other hand, Galam noted that utility men use it as “a technology of imagination, gleaning from it a capacity to shape their future.”

“Faced with few social possibilities in the Philippines, they deploy servitude as a strategy for attaining economic mobility and male adulthood,” Galam said.

Maritime blogger Barista Uno of Marine-Café.Com described the proliferation of “utility boys” as an “ignominy” where the use of maritime cadets as unpaid labor by Philippine manning agencies must be seen as a clear case of exploitation, or as he calls it  “a form of modern-day slavery.”

Barista Uno pointed out that some try to dismiss the whole issue by saying it is the cadets’ choice to serve as utility boys.

He noted that there are industry players that try to rationalize the “serve-for-sail practice” by invoking the need to instill discipline in future ship officers, adding that “such a cavalier attitude shows a lack of concern and empathy.”

“This is yet another example of how seafarers have been commoditized in the 21st century. Those who work at sea and cadets who aspire to become ship officers are like cans of Campbell’s Soup on a supermarket shelf,” Barista Uno said. “The people who have power over them feel that they can use them however they like.”

Let’s stop turning a blind eye to the plight of the utility boys, which Barista Uno described as “a form of modern-day slavery.”

Atty. Gorecho heads the seafarers’ division of the Sapalo Velez Bundang Bulilan law offices. For comments, e-mail info@sapalovelez.com or call 0917-5025808 or 0908-8665786


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