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Ships of shame. Part 5: Reform and who benefits

JOHN HIGHFIELD: Let's turn now to one of our series that we've been running on Daybreak, this week, on the shipping industry in Australia. And since July 1989, more than a quarter of all Australian seafarers have been trained or retrained for the industry. It really has undergone a metamorphosis. In all, there has been more than a 50 per cent increase in productivity coupled with a 38 per cent decrease in crewing levels. The commitment to training has seen Australian seafarers offered jobs world wide, and the Australian National Maritime College receiving international recognition. The training, though, has come at a cost. It takes up to 7 per cent of pay roll, but the majority of participants say it's well worth while. In the final part of our series on shipping, today, Ginny Stein has been looking at who benefits.

GINNY STEIN: Amongst the many reforms within the shipping industry has been the establishment of national training guidelines. In an industry where many seafarers are reluctant to be tied to a particular ship, unemployment is negotiated through a roster pool run by the Seamen's Union. Uniform training has, in the past, been almost impossible. The Australian National Maritime College based in Tasmania plays a key role in ongoing training, and if the number of overseas students enrolling in the college is any guideline, it is fast becoming recognised internationally.

Philip Lever is a final year trainee. He has spent 18 months at sea on a number of vessels - a training requirement of the course. It is a long haul from trainee to captain of a vessel, which has been made even longer by the shrinking shipping industry. Philip says in the past few years he's noticed numerous changes within the industry. Some of them have been good but others not.

PHILIP LEVER: You haven't got a chance to get up the road at all - you're on the go the whole time. You can put in 12 hours, 18 hours a day sometimes.

GINNY STEIN: So what would you say to someone who wants to join the merchant navy and see the world? Is that a reality?

PHILIP LEVER: Oh, no, far from it. I've had a couple of people that I've spoken to before and I'm straight down the line with them. I tell them, you know, it's no glamour job. It's not a job that you need to be an overly intelligent sort of a person. It's got it's good points. You do get to see a bit. If you like being out here, it's quite rewarding some days. When the weather's good it's nice to be out here, but I always tell people that there's always bad points to it. But then, again, that's like any job. There's always good and bad to every job.

GINNY STEIN: So what do you want to do? Where do you want to be in ten years time?

PHILIP LEVER: Good question. I don't know. I'd like to see - oh, well, I'm going to get my master's ticket so I'll still be around for another six or seven years. After I get my master's ticket, we'll see what happens.

GINNY STEIN: So how long does it take after you do this course at the Australian National Maritime College in Launceston to getting your master's certificate and actually being able to be captain of a ship?

PHILIP LEVER: Well, in this company and on this coast - if I really went for it, I could have my master's ticket by the time I'm 27, which is about six years out of the college time. And I'd probably wait - I probably wouldn't get a master's job until late 30s, early 40s, if I was lucky.

GINNY STEIN: It's a hell of a long time to wait.

PHILIP LEVER: Well, see, it depends. There's some guys fall into it. If you're in the right place at the right time, you can just fall into it, but if not, you can wait around a long time. I've sailed with guys that have been Third Mate for seven and eight years, and Mates that have been Mates for nine and ten years, sort of thing. It just depends where you are. If you are at the right place at the right time, you can get it; if not, you've got to wait.

GINNY STEIN: Philip says reduced crews numbers on board merchant vessels have made each person's role vital. He says gone are the days when there could be up to 35 or 40 people crewing container ships. The average is now about 20 on board Australian ships and the number could drop to 18 if the second stage of reform is adopted. Philip echoes his crew mates when he says training has never been more vital. He says every person has a role to play and lives depend on it.

PHILIP LEVER: We had the Second Mate killed, not so long ago, on the Searoad Mersey or something. He was killed when tying the vessel up. You get blase about tying the ship up. You know what you've got to do, and then things like that happen, just instantly. The guy was there one minute and dead the next.

GINNY STEIN: What happened to him?

PHILIP LEVER: Well, the winches ran fast. They pulled the wires in very fast and as the wire came in over the stern, when it left the wharf, it was sort of like a pendulum effect because it's being pulled in fast and you're getting shorter and shorter - the pendulum increases its speed. And he was watching over the stern, and as this wire came in, he wasn't watching that one. It flicked up and grabbed him round the neck and snapped his neck and threw him into the water.

JOHN HIGHFIELD: A pretty terrible way to go. Ginny Stein reporting to us, and what an interesting series it's been on Daybreak, this week, on the shipping industry in Australia undergoing a real revitalisation.