A wharfie’s life: End of the line?

PETE Le SCELLE, a recently retired wharfie of 40 years, stands on the Victoria Quay boardwalk reflecting on the years that were.

He watches a crane unload a solitary ship amongst two and a half kilometers of industrial port and details step by step the craft of unloading the 20 tonne container in under two minutes.

“When a crane’s in full flight you’re unloading over 200 containers a shift,” he says.

“You have to be spot on.

“You can’t make a mistake.”

• Before Fremantle became gentrified and annexed by new-age hipsters, tough-as-nails wharfies ruled the roost; men like Pete Le Scelle (above), who recently retired after busting a gut on the docks for 40 years. Photo by Jayden O’Neill

Le Scelle takes a series of photos of the cranes and passionately tells of the automated twist-lock system that allows the container to be transported onto the truck, ready for storage, and the long hours high up in the crane.

Despite the at times taxing work he remains optimistic.

“For a salty sea dog it’s paradise.”

Photos by Pete Le Scelle

He scans the kilometre-long rows of stacked containers and machinery. “Well, it’s not paradise, but for the nautical man it’s pretty ideal.”

The port of Fremantle is open 24/7, 364 days a year to achieve the formidable task of unloading or loading over 600 vessels each year.

Wharfies work shift work in teams of 14 unloading up to 1000 containers within 24 hours.

The wharf closes only when weather conditions are deemed ‘severe’.

A good breeze, Le Scelle says, can make the containers swing midair and even blow the cranes up the port.

Photos by Pete Le Scelle

It is the shift work and difficult conditions wharfies find most challenging.

“The only thing I don’t miss is the 10pm till 6am shift,” he says about retirement.

Especially in a storm when the rain is blowing sideways and you’re alone and freezing cold in the crane cab.

Although the Fremantle wharf has come to be known by its industrial layout of cranes, containers and exclusion fences, Le Scelle says that’s a recent addition. He became a wharfie in 1974 after arriving in Australia from New Zealand and remembers turning up to the Victoria Quay sheds each morning in anticipation of a day’s work.

Stevedoring companies hand-picked workers in the unjust bull system—favouring the strongest, bull-like men.

The work was heavy and rough with cargo being unloaded in sacks by hand.

Accidents and serious injury were common with no workers compensation or sick pay.

The long history of precarious conditions, hard yakka labour and the competitive, casualised shift work meant wharfies relied on their own forms of solidarity—family, camaraderie and the union.

The sense of identity became aligned with other workmates, not the employer.

“Whenever there’d be crew sick and unable to work we’d all sacrifice a bit our wages to help them out,” Le Scelle says.

“That was just the sort of things you did.”

The long hours and physical hardship demanded wharfies to be thick skinned with a good sense of humour, Le Scelle says.

Banter at the expense of other work mates was often a sign of affection.

“One day a foreman fell off a container ship into the water and we all rushed to the edge of the ship and someone said, ‘throw him a life reserve’ and the bloke next to him said, ‘nah, throw him a crowbar,’” Le Scelle laughs and pauses for a long time. “We did get him out, though.”

The characters, Le Scelle says, kept the workplace entertaining.

He mentions a man called ‘The Judge’ because he was lazy and always sitting on a case, and a couple of old boys called “The London Fog” because they never lifted and ‘The Midnight Chemist’ because he wouldn’t stop talking.

Sam Wainwright, a former wharfie and now councillor at Fremantle, believes the wharfies were central to the development of the port city’s culture.

Before the World War II thousands were employed on Victoria Quay and would have lived in Fremantle.

The relationship between the port and the town was intimately entwined, Wainwright says.

The wharfs would have been crowded with ships and the streets flooded with wharfies walking into town for lunch and drinking at the pubs.

The distance between port culture and the town increased with the advent of containers in the mid to late 1970s.

The job became quickly mechanised with portainer cranes and trucks.

To cater for the machinery the port moved from Victoria Quay to the North Quay leaving roughly three quarters of wharfies without a job.

Ex-Waterside Workers’ Federation Victoria president Jim Beggs says in his book Proud To Be A Wharfie that wharfies are an endangered species.

Now less than a tenth of workers are required to discharge hundreds of thousands more tonnes than ever before.

According to the Fremantle Port’s 2015–2016 annual report 34.91 million tonnes were traded at the port with a total value of  $26.1 billion.

Despite proposals to move some of the port to Kwinana to cater for the continuing expansion of the container trade, Fremantle mayor Brad Pettitt says the city will support the long-term running of the port, believing that a working port is central to Fremantle’s identity.

According to Christy Cain, WA secretary of the Maritime Union of Australia, keeping the port in Fremantle is only half the problem. Automation poses the biggest threats to wharfies.

Wharfs around the world have already implemented automated processes making the historic profession redundant.

Although the port already shows signs of automation and the culture and characters that have typified a generation of wharfies have began to disappear, the port remains as an iconic backdrop and a stable reminder of Fremantle’s humble beginnings and sea-salty heart.

by JAYDEN O’NEILL

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