Sailors Steady Island Economies


AS the dawning day paints mauve clouds, and roosters cackle, two bleary-eyed Kiribati (kir-uh-BAS) boys stand in a sentry box at the gate of the Marine Training Centre. Night watch is part of a sailor-to-be's regimen. It's obviously not one of the attractions of signing on. ``It's for the money,'' says Autin, one of the sentries. ``The main idea is for a new fishing boat for my family.''

``No jobs, except here,'' says fellow sentry Beria.

Kiribati now has more than 1,000 seamen abroad who send home some A$4 million (US $3.05 million) annually, a pittance for most nations. But it amounts to 12 percent of this tiny central Pacific country's gross domestic product.

As decolonization spreads across the Pacific, emerging island micro-states are seeking not just political, but economic independence. Weaning ``coconut'' economies off foreign aid is difficult, however. Vast distances to export markets, high freight charges, unskilled workers, poor communications and transport links are formidable hurdles to development.

To date, successes are few. In the early 1980s, Tuvalu and Kiribati made tidy sums by selling stamps, until the market collapsed. Tourism is reaping substantial, if fluctuating, returns in some island countries. And Vanuatu, the Cook Islands, and now Western Samoa are generating a modest income by setting up corporate tax havens.

Still, one of the most enduring and offbeat successes here is the training of islanders, mostly from Kiribati and Tuvalu, as sailors for international cargo ships.

The Marine Training Centre has been operating since 1967. Set up with aid money from the United Nations and Britain, it's now run by a consortium of nine German shipping companies.

Dressed in numbered uniforms of blue shirts and shorts, the current crop of 130 students have nine months of both classroom and hands-on instruction.

On campus, there's a ship's bridge simulator, plus engine, electrical, and welding shops. Also on the grounds is the deck of a ship complete with crane and cargo doors to practice loading techniques. And a brilliant red ship superstructure is a ``live'' classroom for fire fighting instruction. By the lagoon is a lifeboat and hoist, where lifesaving drills are practiced. Before they officially go to sea, the lads spend three months working on ``Nei Mataburo,'' an inter-island trading vessel.

Most boys, adept at fishing in small outrigger canoes, have a natural affinity for the sea. Now they're learning to handle bigger boats and ``the discipline to be good seamen,'' says Capt. Supt. Volker Ueckert.

About 80 percent of the graduates go to work for German shipping firms. The rest sign on with South Pacific shippers. This year, the school is also training crews for a Japanese firm.

Able seamen start at A$400 (US $305) a month. That jumps to A$600 when overtime pay is included. It may sound like exploitation. But the seamen are represented by a local union with ties to the International Transport Workers Union.

In fact, the seamen are making more than 10 times the average annual income of their fellow islanders. And the center doesn't just turn out deckhands; it also trains engineers and officers.

There are similar schools in Tuvalu, Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and the Philippines. And Kiribati's success has not been lost on the Marshall Islands.

Twenty-four Marshallese are now training at the Philippines Merchant Marine Academy in a new program funded by the UN, the Marshall Islands government, and Oak Steamship, a Hong Kong-based shipping firm.

The training is a spinoff from a blossoming ship registry business. The Marshall Islands is now competing with such countries as Panama and Liberia to sign ships under ``flags of convenience'' registrations.

Apart from its low price, the Marshall Islands' edge is that the ships may qualify for protection from the United States Navy. Under the 1986 Compact of Free Association, the US provides for the Marshall Islands' defense.

In 18 months, six ships have registered, with another three expected by the end of the year. On top of registry fees, each vessel is charged US $1,000 per year to fund seamen training.

``Demand for good seamen is strong,'' says Howard Zeder of the Marshall Islands Maritime Authority office in Honolulu. I think we can employ 100 people a year before long. In the Marshall Islands, that's a significant number of jobs,'' he notes.

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