Part of a series of interview segments produced by the SUA/MUA in which retired Australian merchant seamen recount their working lives at sea as well as their engagement with union campaigns and activities. Each episode features a seaman, or sometimes a pair of seamen, sharing their story in a largely unstructured and extended interview. They form an important on camera collection of oral histories about Australia’s unionised merchant seamen.
In this episode seaman Bobby Smith recounts how he began work in 1948, after waiting in the gutter to be picked up. In the beginning wages were very low, just 6 pounds per month for boys. It was difficult to “get time in” so as to earn higher wages and the accommodation was very poor, with conditions only improving because of union demands – which included the supply of industrial clothing. Working conditions were worse in Queensland than in NSW. Working overtime was essential, at least 3 hours per day otherwise one was poverty stricken. And if the owners could get away with not paying 1 hour of overtime to a worker then they would not pay it. He remembers the owners being very mean.
They were often at sea for months and this was hard on the wives, but the Seaman’s Retirement Fund was a great accomplishment, before which he remembers seamen retiring with only a suitcase to their name. Bobby has great pride in the Union and talks at length about the Liberal Party’s attacks on the unions, while also commenting on extensive corruption in the maritime industry. Bobby remembers the dreadful food at sea and the difficulty in getting rid of cooks. Some ships were good while others were atrocious – and it all depended on the cook. He recounts many anecdotes and incidents at sea.
Picture and sound quality is low given low budget production.
Author: J Bird, 2023