An Australian Merchant Seaman’s Story In His Own Words – Taffe Sweetensen

Australian Workers Film Guide


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 Taffe Sweetensen recounts how he left Britain in 1942 for Australia. He was a fireman, working the fires, four to five tons per day. The monthly wages were just over three pounds. The system was set up so you would work for up to eight hours per week for nothing, because of shifts. When he first began, there were very few Australian seamen. There were Welsh, Irish, Scottish, English and Greeks. An Australian was always the “Aussie”.

He worked on British ships for three years, then landed in Australia in 1942. There was not much difference, but remembers some British ships being better than the Australian ones. Australian unions would fight for their rights. In Britain, the seaman was on his own. The British unions were there, in name only, so the members would “religiously pay their dues”. That’s all. The Australian unions were prepared to fight. The union was totally opposed to the Vietnam War from the start and they would protest outside the American embassy. The union was always a collective, about a team and not the individual. It became part of your life. It was unique. He was always an active part of the union.

He felt that the Australian law would always put the screws on the workers, the ship owners never gave away anything for nothing. The union school was good for educating the youngest members about workers’ rights. But Taffy remembers leaving at one time, and setting up a new left wing socialist party. It was made up of the Maritime branch of the Communist Party. The socialist movement was very strong in Australia, but it was eventually torn to pieces. He remarks that some officials were getting penalties from seamen’s wages. The Seaman Retirement Fund was one of the great achievements of all time.

Special Notes/Achievements

Picture and sound quality is low given low budget production.

Author: J Bird, 2023

Duration: 65 mins

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Film Director: Wayne Finch, John Brittain,

Film Producer: Wayne Finch, John Brittain,

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Film Cinematographer: Wayne Finch, John Brittain,

Film Editor: Jennie Finch, Jamie McMechan,

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