All at sea

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 27 September, 1997, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 27 September, 1997, 12:00am

Carol Shum Wai-kwai clambered into a blue boiler suit, strapped on an orange life jacket, and took her place in the queue to jump four metres into a swimming pool and struggle into a waiting life raft. Later, Ms Shum, 21, fought 30-metre flames roaring from a pit filled with 150 litres of kerosene.

With a dozen other diploma students from Tsing Yi Technical College studying marine and electronic communication, Ms Shum was taking a week-long course at the Seamen's Training Centre in Tai Lam Chung last week, intended to kick-start a career at sea.

It was not an option Ms Shum was considering. '[The seamen's training] is compulsory,' she said. 'Most graduates are working for pager companies, that's what I want to do as well.' For Timothy Kwong Tsez-yeung, 22, the course was another certificate to put on his resume. 'I'm not very interested in the sea, but I suppose if there's no other choice maybe I would consider it.' Their indifference troubles Jack Haworth, 61, manager of the training centre run by the Vocational Training Council. '[Being a seafarer is] a very satisfying job,' he said, 'working together in small teams, making friendships. And of course you have plenty of time to study, read and develop any hobbies you have.' But young adults like Ms Shum and Mr Kwong are not convinced. Seafaring is a dying profession in Hong Kong.

Foreign-going and Pearl River seafarers must register with the Marine Department. In 1971, 51,876 were on the books. Today there are 2,971. The average age of Hong Kong seafarers is now over 50, and climbing.

It is with more than just sentimental concern that Mr Haworth, an old sea dog who with his white hair and beard looks the part, views the decline of his profession here.

Many seafarers spend only about 15 years at sea before coming ashore to work, said Mr Haworth, who left his Liverpool home at 15 for a career at sea and moved to Hong Kong in the mid-1960s. There are dozens of crucial shore-based professions vital for the functioning of the SAR's container port, the world's busiest, which can be undertaken only by ex-seafarers.

They include ship planners who decide how to pack containers on board, shipping company superintendents, harbour pilots who steer in vessels over 3,000 tonnes and all foreign-flagged ships, marine surveyors, hydrographers, coast guards, officers on Macau and China-bound ferries, officers on weather ships and cable ships, lecturers, Marine Department officials, even the Director of Marine.

In the first half of this year, 6.77 million containers passed through Hong Kong. Last year, 49,018 people were employed in shipping or shipping-related industries such as cargo-forwarding services, container haulage and leasing, and shipyards.

Mr Haworth said it was already becoming more difficult to recruit instructors at the training centre. Established in 1983, the centre moved to its present site on the coast between Tsuen Wan and Tuen Mun in 1988. It has been described by the International Maritime Organisation as 'second to none in the world'.

But applications have dived for places on the centre's core courses - a 23-week course for junior general purpose ratings (the lowest rank on board), and a two-year course for deck cadets (trainee officers) in conjunction with Haking Wong Technical Institute.

In 1987, about 130 people applied for the ratings course, said Ricky Luk Pak-hung, a recruitment and placement officer. This year the figure was just 60.

The courses are free for Hong Kong permanent residents.

In the 1970s, Hong Kong seamen could earn several times the salaries of their landlubber friends, said Mr Haworth. Since then, salaries in the SAR have soared, while seafarers' salaries have been held back by cheaper workers from countries such as the Philippines and Bangladesh.

Every year, the Merchant Navy Officers' Guild - which traces its roots back to 1850s Shanghai - sets recommended pay rates for Hong Kong seafarers. This year they range from $30,219 a month, including leave pay, for a third officer to a generous $79,837 for a master.

But the rates are merely a bargaining tool. A typical master actually earns around $40,000 a month, according to Wong Kwok-kin, general secretary of the Hong Kong Seamen's Union, which boasted 20,000 members in 1977 but now has 8,000. Ratings usually make about $11,000.

The real money problems for officers come at the beginning of their careers, according to Mr Luk, effectively stifling any desire to take on a career at sea.

To progress through the ranks, officers must obtain three licences, known as tickets. The lowest is known as the class-three, while the highest is the class-one, or master's, ticket. These are issued by each local flag administration, in Hong Kong's case the Marine Department.

Before being eligible to take the examinations for the class-three ticket, ratings must have served three years at sea. Training centre deck-cadet graduates are entitled to one year's sea-time remission. That still leaves two years serving at the cadet pay rate of $7,995. The salary is low because cadets are traditionally viewed as surplus crew aboard ship.

The cadet salary just does not make up for cramped conditions, possible danger and spending nine months at a time at sea before getting more than a couple of days leave, said William Wong Lap-wah, the training centre's chief instructor.

Though the two-year deck-cadet courses at the centre still attract enough people to fill all 20 places, of this year's graduates only six plan to go to sea. The rest will look for marine-related support jobs ashore.

'I think [those who do not go to sea] will have quite a bad future, compared to the people who will have sea time,' said Mr Luk. 'The higher posts ashore will eventually go to those who were ship masters, not to people who have Form Five level, a diploma, or even a degree.' The written examinations for officers' tickets are taken at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University's Department of Maritime Studies, where courses are offered to prepare the seafarers.

The dearth of new blood in the profession is filtering through, according to department head Ng Chiu-keung.

The new semester starts on Monday and so far, Mr Ng said, just two students have applied for each course.

'It's so low that we are not certain that we can run the courses this year,' Mr Ng said. 'Unless something drastic is done, I think the number of new entrants will continue to decline.' Mr Ng acknowledged numbers on the courses were unlikely to increase in the near future because most undergraduate students in the Department of Maritime Studies were not keen to pursue a career at sea.

The department's higher diploma in shipping management studies was intended to pave the way for a land-based career, but the bachelor's degree course in shipping technology and management would equip students well for jobs on board, he said.

The course has been operating for just two years, with the first batch of 30 students set to graduate next year. Mr Ng said he hoped the qualification would earn the students up to two years' sea-time remission for the class-three ticket.

For the past two summers, Mr Ng said, the Department of Maritime Studies has hired a training ship from Shanghai Maritime University to take male students on eight-week tours around Southeast Asia in a bid to inspire them to a life at sea. (The Shanghai university deems conditions aboard the training vessel unfit for female students.) And at Hong Kong Sea School, a secondary school in Stanley where almost half the curriculum is practical work about seafaring, just a handful of the 90 graduates each year will become seamen, according to principal Lucas Chan Kwok-hei. The only school in the SAR supposed to groom students for a maritime vocation, it caters mostly for problem students rejected by other schools.

The school currently runs classes from Form One to Form Three, so pupils leave at 15 or 16 - too young to go to sea, said Mr Chan.

He hoped in the near future the school would be able to add Forms Four and Five classes, which might see more students choosing to become seamen.

The training centre's Mr Luk said the Government should help double cadets' salaries by subsidising shipping companies. In the end, he said, government departments would benefit from being able to recruit experienced seamen.

But the idea was quashed by the spokesman at the Marine Department. In response to faxed questions, he wrote: '$7,995 is quite favourable when compared with rates in Europe and Australia. In this aspect the Government has been adopting a non-interference approach and we thus will not subsidise a commercial business.' Mr Ng suggested instead that the time taken to progress up the pay ladder should be reviewed.

One possible solution to the shortage would be to take on recruits from the mainland but, Mr Haworth said, it might only be a short-term solution. Without permanent Hong Kong residency they would probably be unable to take up senior shore posts in the future.

The Seamen's Training Centre is building on-site accommodation, with 50 beds. Space would go first to Hong Kong trainees who found it inconvenient to travel to the centre each day, but mainlanders studying to take up positions with Hong Kong shipping companies would be the second priority, Mr Haworth said.

The 1995 revisions to the International Convention on Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping for Seafarers (1978) may also improve the situation, he said.

The revisions, which become fully effective in 2002, tighten up enforcement of training standards by giving the International Maritime Organisation the right for the first time to oversee the internal training and qualifications systems of flag administrations.

Hong Kong seafarers were expected to have no problems, but many poorly qualified seamen from elsewhere could be forced out of their jobs. This could reduce the world supply of seafarers and increase wages.

Arthur Bowring, director of the Hong Kong Shipowners' Association which groups 76 operators and 150 companies associated with the industry, said the association was not involved in pay issues. He agreed there was a serious recruitment problem, but pointed out that was common to rich countries worldwide.

'It's very difficult to get youngsters in a developed society to choose the sea as a career,' Mr Bowring said. 'I think it was Joseph Conrad [an English master mariner and author who lived from 1857 to 1924] who compared the sea to like being in prison, but he said at least the prison isn't moving.

'It's always difficult as a cadet,' he said. 'But you're there as an apprentice.'