Wayne Rae
Interview with: Wayne Rae (WR)
Occupation: Sugar Boiler, Moreton Mill Nambour
Interviewer: Gary McKay (GM)
Location of Interview: Moreton Mill
Date of Interview: 28 August 2003

Wayne was born in Geelong, Victoria in 1957 and moved to the Maroochy area as a young lad. After completing secondary school in 1974, he attended the Sugar School in Mackay in 1975 to get his Certificate in Sugar Analysis. He worked in the laboratory until 1985 as a seasonal employee and did general handyman work in the slack season. He became a full time employee in 1987 after having worked in the pan stage of the sugar milling process as a pan boiler’s assistant and then moving up to sugar boiler where he has worked ever since. In the growing season he has worked as a tradesman’s assistant in the workshop, mainly in boiler maintenance duties. He considers himself too young to retire and is planning to move into housing project developments, as he says, ‘on a very small scale’.

 

 

 

Audio file

Wayne Rae oral history [MP3 54MB]

 

Transcript


GM This is a recording of an interview with Wayne Rae, a sugar boiler at the Moreton Mill at Nambour, recorded for the Maroochy Library’s Last Crush Project by Gary McKay on Thursday 28 August 2003.

Wayne firstly thanks very much for taking part in our project. Could you tell us when and how you came into the sugar industry?

WR It was late 1974, at the end of my high school years. My father saw an ad in the ‘Courier Mail’ advertising for expressions of interest to enrol in a Certificate in Sugar Analysis Course in Mackay. We then came up to the Mill here and saw the then Chief Chemist, Vince Eglington, and spoke to him about it. He said if I did the course that I would be guaranteed a job in the lab at the Mill here somewhere. So I proceeded with the enrolment and I got accepted in the course which I started in January 1975, and have been at the Mill ever since.

GM So you are 17 years of age and you’re off to Mackay. First time away from home?

WR Yes, it was.

GM Tell us about that course.

WR It was an industry specific course that is designed for the sugar industry; it was virtually the breeding ground for sugar chemists for the industry. The courses involved were maths and English and then industry specific subjects such as mill technology, all the chemistry and cane pest and disease – every aspect to do with the sugar industry was covered in that course. They had a specific school there in Mackay and it was called the Sugar School and the course ran for 20 weeks, starting in January and ending in May, so that the then chemists could go to the mills all over Queensland and work the crushing seasons.

GM Had you ever thought about going into the industry before that?

WR No.

GM But it gave a good prospect for a job, didn’t it?

WR It did. I was really pushed into it by my father. He said you’ve got to use your brains and not your hands and I thought well, I’ll go along with that. Here I am now and I’ve been using my hands ever since, and now I’m out of job at the end of this year.

GM So what is the main process of the Mill that you are involved in right now?

WR My job definition is a sugar boiler. It is the end of the factory where the end product comes out. I am responsible for the growth of the crystals and the quality control of it.

GM Do you work in that area where they have those big spin driers?

WR No. They are below me. They fugal the sugar that I make.

GM You’ve had a varied career here haven’t you?

WR Yes.

GM Tell us about it – you started off in the lab. Tell us about how long you did that for and what you did after that.

WR I started in the lab in 1975 as a bench chemist and I worked there as a seasonal right up to 1986, where I was given the opportunity to go to the pan stage. I worked the crushing season in 1986 as a sugar boiler’s assistant and in 1987 I started off as a sugar boiler and have been permanent ever since then.

GM In about that 8 or 9-year period, when you were only here part-time, what did you do during the slack season?

WR Went on the dole and did whatever odd jobs that come around at the time on the Coast – bread delivery van was one; I did a lot of house painting and maintenance and that sort of thing that just sort of kept me busy.

GM So your father’s advice only applied for a certain part of the year.

WR It did, thanks to dear old Dad.

GM Were there a lot of blokes in the same position as you; that only worked in the crushing season?

WR Yes. I worked 12 or 13 seasons before I came permanent. There are other blokes here at this Mill now who had worked 20-22 seasonal years before they came permanent. But the industry as a whole - there is a lot of seasonal workers that just come back year after year.

GM You finally get made a full-time employee. What did you do at that stage when the crushing wasn’t on?

WR When I was here, I became a tradesman’s assistant to various boilermakers over the years. I got a ticket in the overhead crane, for the milling train, and I used to drive that. (Got) forklift ticket and any odd jobs that had to be done or something had to be done – I was just that sort of roustabout type of thing.

GM There’s plenty of things to do when they’re not crushing, isn’t there?

WR There’s always too much to do. Never ever really gets done by the time crushing comes around.

GM A lot of rolling stock to keep look after and all that sort of stuff.

WR A lot of maintenance.

GM In this sugar boiling thing that you’re involved in now, what is the most important part of that job?

WR Sugar quality. Because we are the end product and what we make determines the quality of the sugar. Any penalties on it with regards to fine grain and a lot of other parameters that are involved with it, it is our responsibility to make sure that we operate our machinery and produce the best product we can.

GM You work with those great big vats?

WR Yes.

GM A million degrees?

WR Yes.

GM That’s shift work?

WR Yes.

GM You are on the MAD system I understand.

WR Morning (sic: midnight), afternoon, day. Going backwards, yes.

GM I like the description of that. How many people work here at the Mill?

WR I think at the moment we’ve got about 38 to 40 permanents. During the crushing I think it goes up to 95 to 100. The bagging plant used to run three shifts so there would be an extra half a dozen seasonals employed there, but at the moment we’ve only got two crews on there. It varies from year to year.

GM Has it changed much since you started in 1975?

WR Yes.

GM What do you think have been the biggest changes you’ve seen at the Mill?

WR Would be probably the automation. When I first started at the pan stage, everything was manual. All the controls were manual; all the settings were manual. Now it is the computerised age. Although the computers have done a terrific job with regard to controlling quality and consistency, they have also done away with jobs. That would be one of the biggest changes I’ve seen.

GM Catastrophic or memorable events whilst you have been here – can you recall any?

WR Well, the boiler failure was one. That was Statewide news when it collapsed through lack of water. I still remember everyone working 12, 16 hours a day for a couple of weeks straight to virtually rip it apart and re-tube it and re-concrete it. There were other contractors that came in. Generally when things like that have happened at this Mill, all the employees here have rallied together and got most of the jobs done, which is what happened in the slack season of 2002, last year, when the bagasse loft caught on fire. There was talk about bringing contractors in from left, right and centre and these guys here got together and said, ‘Look we can do this’. We all banded together and we did the overtime, did the work, and got it ready and operational before crushing. Another one that comes to mind would be when the effets was boiling out with caustic and it was accidentally vented into the atmosphere and covered the town with caustic. Cars in the carpark over there got dosed with caustic – red cars turned to pink cars, colorbond roofs lost their colour, zincalume roofs lost the zinc, aluminium antennas lost their reception. But it could have been a lot worse than it was.

GM What vented?

WR An atmospheric pressure vent on the effets. It accidentally opened when the caustic was boiling and it spilt caustic into the atmosphere. That was a major drama, that one.

GM I suppose people made claims on the Company did they?

WR Yes. There were insurance assessors here left, right and centre and people making claims left, right and centre.

GM But no one got injured?

WR No. Could have been a lot worse.

GM Worst season. I had an answer from Noel Brown before and he said this one because it’s the last one.

WR Well, I agree with that too. To me, this is my point of view actually, apart from the droughts that we’ve had and the floods that we’ve had that have given us bad seasons, then we’ve had extra good seasons. But to me every season has been the worst season because in 1991 they gave us, they the Mill, a very unfashionable T-shirt to say that it’s a record and that we crushed 500,000 ton of cane. Here we are 12 years later and we are going to still crush 500,000 ton of cane. Whereas other mills that were smaller than us, for instance Maryborough, they are looking at close to 1,000,000 where we are still on 500,000 ton of cane. I believe that every season has been the worst one because that has been our demise.

GM It is because we’re not getting enough cane here?

WR That’s exactly right. Not pointing the finger at either the Mill or the growers. I think it is a combination of the two – the growers haven’t expanded and the Mill hasn’t increased their crushing capacity. So they have been flogging a dead horse for quite a few years.

GM Noel reckons the writing has been on the wall for a while and that it’s not an overnight thing.

WR No. It’s been going downhill for a long time.

GM The area is under a lot of pressure isn’t it – the Maroochy area – for growing cane. People want to gobble it up. I heard a great expression by someone yesterday, might have been Jim, saying people want to grow houses instead of growing cane.

WR I would agree with that. Here we are on the Sunshine Coast, one of the fastest growing areas in Australia, and there is very little land for housing. You’ve got the cane land here and it would be a pity to see our rural background to the Coast disappear and become urban sprawl, which is probably going to happen.

GM I think it is one of the reasons that a lot of people move up here, because it is not like the Gold Coast. It is still a real area, as I call it, not plastic.

WR That’s right.

GM What do you think have been the more memorable milestones for you personally here at the Mill?

WR For me, personally, I suppose it would be the year I became a full-time employee, being married with young kids and a mortgage. It just gave me a good sense of security and since then I’ve prospered and it has only been through the full-time employment here at the Mill. Possibly another memorable moment would be the bicentenary (Centenary) we had a couple of years ago. Not many people in an industry get to celebrate a 100 years of a particular industry and we were lucky enough to be here at the time and celebrate that.

GM What was your involvement in the Centenary celebrations?

WR My involvement was just going there and having a feed and drinking plenty of alcohol.

GM What sort of things did they do?

WR They had a big to-do down at the Showgrounds. Unfortunately I was on the shift working the night that happened, but they put on another do for those people who couldn’t make it a week or so later out at a hall.

GM Made up for it?

WR Sort of made up for it.

GM I mean they brought in steam locos and all sorts of things, didn’t they?

WR Yes, they had them up and down the street. They bring steam locos in for the annual Sugar Festival each year too.

GM Do you have any involvement in that as a participant in the Sugar Festival?

WR No, I don’t. I’ve helped out on some of the floats and that when the fellows have been getting them ready for the parade, and then I’ve helped them out there.

GM The introduction of the bagging plant – you thought it was a saving grace?

WR I did. I might be proved wrong by others, but I felt that this Mill, because we were crushing such a little amount of cane, we were making Brand One sugar, which was going to the Brisbane refinery mainly and remelted or shipped overseas. Then came the introduction of DC, Direct Consumption sugar and the bagging plant. That gave us a little bit of a niche market, ourselves here, by bagging the one-ton and the 25-Kg packets which can be bought on the supermarket shelves and a lot of little factories around the place, bakeries etc that need sugar, buy it off us. That gave us something to produce when the Brisbane refinery shut down. I felt that the introduction of the DC sugar here and the bagging plant gave us a couple more years of life.

GM Where do they do refining now?

WR I think Golden Circle themselves have a little refining plant there, but they only make liquid.

GM Where does the sugar go – it leaves here in bulk doesn’t it?

WR It goes to the bulk terminal in Brisbane and then it is shipped to a refinery in Melbourne and I think some of it goes to New Zealand etc.

GM One used to be at New Farm?

WR I think it was. I’ve never been there.

GM Accidents. Bad accidents at the Mill.

WR Yes. Two that I remember that the other guys have probably spoken about. Neil O’Connor who broke his back. I think he fell off a pipe and when he hit, he landed on a valve handle and broke his back. He became wheelchair-bound but once he recovered he came back to work and was in the administration office here for quite a number of years before his retirement. Just in the last few months, he’s passed on. That was the worst accident I’ve seen. A couple of years ago, a huge gate fell on a fit and healthy old fellow, 60 plus, who would work from dawn to dark. This gate fell on him and broke his hip and now he’s just limping around and he can’t do anything, which was a shame to see. Apart from those two, they are the only two major accidents I can remember.

GM Are you Maroochydore born and bred?

WR No. I was born in Geelong in Victoria.

GM Bad luck – the Cats I mean. Your dad came up here?

WR Yes. The family relocated to Maroochydore in 1969 and I was still at school.

GM So, you’ve really been a local?

WR Yes.

GM You must have a fairly close association with all the people that work here?

WR Yes.

GM Having worked shift work you’d get to meet just about everybody wouldn’t you at some stage or another. What are you going to do if the Mill closes?

WR What am I going to do? I can’t see myself getting full-time employment anywhere at the moment. I’ve got my finger in a couple of pies in the construction industry. I’ve already built a house and sold it and I’ve got a few more blocks of land and I’m going to do that. I’ve been planning this for a couple of years now. I’ve had to because I thought the writing was on the wall for this place. At this stage that’s what I’m planning to get into.

GM Basically a mini-property developer?

WR Very, very mini.

GM At least you’re doing it. If you were 63 years of age and the Mill was closing you’d say, ‘Okay, well now I’ll pull the pin’, but you are only 46. You’ve still got a few years left. The way the property boom is going on the Coast, you’ll probably be able to make a fairly good fist of that.

WR Yes.

GM What do you think is going to be the greatest loss if the Mill closes?

WR Well, apart from the jobs that are going to get lost and all the associated industries that support the Sugar Mill here, as I said before the mateship - you come to work each day and see the same old blokes and you have the same old joke. That will all be lost. Apart from all that, I think it is the rural background to the Coast that will be the big loser. The whole Coast here - we are all sort of virtually born and bred here – if all that cane land goes to development and houses, it won’t be the same Coast. I think that will be the greatest loss.

GM I think it will be ugly.

WR Driving along the road here and you see the cane land and the beach beside it. People surfing on the beach and cane land right up to it - it’s just a terrific tourism site. To see all that go, to me that would be a great shame.

GM I just don’t know if it’s viable for people to truck their cane to Maryborough.

WR I don’t think so. I think the cost is too much. Then again, from what I see, the farmers want Maryborough to extend their crushing season to accommodate their cane here and I’ve heard figures of 120,000 (sic: 150,000) ton of cane here going up to Maryborough. But the Mill and the growers here have fought for years and years and years about the growers wanting us here to shorten our crushing season and the Mill have said, ‘No, we want to expand it’. Now the growers are wanting Maryborough to expand theirs to accommodate it. It all seems a little bit ... But anyway, it’s just my opinion.

GM What is it like when you sit down and talk with your fellow workers about the impending closure – what it the attitude of people like?

WR The attitude – some of them can’t wait to get out. They have had enough of the innuendos and stories over the last few years. Everyone has been on tender-hooks for the last few years, not knowing whether they are going to have a job at the end of the year or whatever. So it’s a peace of mind to a lot of blokes knowing that the Mill is closing and that this is the last year. Some of them are distraught and don’t know what they are going to do. They are industry specific and there is not a hell of a lot of industry on the Sunshine Coast. We haven’t got another sugar mill five kilometres up the road where we can all go and apply for a job or get a seasonal job or something like that. What they are going to do, I don’t know. We have a pretty elderly workforce here. A lot of them would have liked another five years employment and then after that a lot of them would have thought that they were probably a little bit more secure and not worry about it as much. A lot of them are at that age, 50 to 55 age, where it is very hard to get another job.

GM Has the company done any retraining?

WR At the moment we are going through courses at TAFE. We have Government people coming in now, Government assistance for TAFE courses. They’ve got a consultancy group in here that are helping us with our financial matters and they are going to get us ready for the outside workforce by the end of the year, so they said. They have said they will have us ready to get a job, but they won’t get us a job.

GM Well, is there anything else that you’d like to talk about – the history of the place while you’ve been here?

WR Not really. I’ve thought about it and thought about it before this, but I really can’t think of anything else that I could even comment on, to contribute to.

GM Well, we’ll call it quits there, and I thank you very much Wayne.

WR No worries.

End of Interview