Changing Demographics in Pacific Seafaring

From Sailors and Traders: A Maritime History of the Pacific Peoples, by Alastair Couper (U. Hawai‘i Press, 2009), pp. 178-180, 188:

As well as improvements in maritime education and training under IMO regulations, there has also been a veritable social revolution in Fiji. The young generation of Pacific sailors no longer seriously ascribes to the old tradition that females bring “bad luck” to a ship. Pacific women have shown considerable strength of character, as well as new professionalism, in taking charge of crews and in coping with family….

The other change in human relations in Fiji has been an amelioration within the maritime sector of the sensitive issue of race relations. The exclusion of all but indigenous Fijians from the Waterside Workers and Seamen’s Union, which was registered in 1946 with a specific racial limitation clause, continued until a rival unsegregated seamen’s union emerged in 1992. The reasons for the initial segregation are deeply embedded in colonial history. However, with the increase of Fijians as wage earners in ports and shipping, trade union exclusiveness seemed as much a matter of class as race. Ports and shipping had Fijian laborers and ratings, while Europeans and part-Europeans were officials and officers. Capital in turn came from the United Kingdom and Australasia and locally from Indo-Fijian commercial sources. The more class-conscious union organizers saw the Fijians as “workers” and the others as “bosses” who were not eligible for union membership.

The mobility of a few Fijian ratings with sufficient education to junior officer levels and the increase of indigenous Fijians serving as cadets and officers on local vessels have reduced the basis for class resentment. There are still racial problems, but younger Fijian sailors recognize the merits of Indo-Fijians as mariners. For example, the Khan family on the island of Nairai have long been regarded as good sailors, running their own cutters with Fijian officers and crew….

The global hierarchical structure is broadly 40 percent officers from countries in the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development), plus Russia, Poland, and some of the eastern European states, and most of the ratings from eastern Europe and developing countries, including some Pacific islands.

Increasingly, young men and a few women from the Pacific are moving to officer ranks on foreign-flag ships, as there is a dire shortage of officers in the developed ship-owning states. The shortage is due to both declining interest in careers at sea and the losses of trained personnel arising from demands ashore in business, technology, and administration for well-qualified mariners. One of the several advantages to Germany, for example, of recruiting lower-cost sailors in Kiribati and training some of them to officer levels is the lack of well-paid employment in islands for their skills, which would attract officers ashore. Thus there is a minimizing of wastage from manpower training investments. There are twelve maritime training institutions in the Pacific Islands. Only Fiji and Papua New Guinea provide the full range of education and training from pre-sea, rating, and officer courses to Class 1 foreign-going masters and chief engineers. Several other places offer training of ratings and/or junior officers. There is mobility in training, with concentrations for special courses under the coordination of the SPC Regional Maritime Programme….

Kiribati in 1959 (as part of the Gilbert and Ellice Islands crown colony, GEIC) was already supplying seafarers to the China Navigation Company of Britain. There were also crews and a few I-Kiribati nationals serving as officers, usually with European captains, on colony ships sailing on long-distance interisland routes. In terms of distance, Kiribati shipping was virtually foreign-going…. Kiribati is now the principal country in the Pacific island region for supplying seafarers.

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Filed under economics, education, Fiji, labor, Micronesia, Pacific, Papua New Guinea

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