Future of vital maritime industry left at sea
As a gang of more than 30 security guards boarded a vessel in the middle of the night, the crew on board were sure they were under terrorist attack. Instead they were hauled off to be sacked
By MUA National Secretary Paddy Crumlin
WHEN the Maritime Union of Australia joined other key stakeholders from the maritime sector in Melbourne for a forum on the future of coastal shipping there was one notable absentee – the Federal Government.
Three Senate crossbenchers, Labor and the Greens again showed their support for the future of Australian shipping at last week’s forum. And all urged the need for unions, business and the Government to work together as the industry continues to face difficulties in the current environment.
The Abbott/Turnbull Government’s deregulation Bill failed to pass the Senate in November and while a further three crossbench Senators who opposed the Bill couldn’t make the forum, there’s no reason to suspect their position has shifted either.
For its part, the MUA focused on the importance of certainty for investment in ships and maritime infrastructure, for employment security and maintaining the maritime skills base.
The political objective is to reintroduce a new Bill that commands wide political and industry support, hence the forum. It will also require Government support in order to pass.
One of the main topics of discussion at the forum, unsurprisingly, was the treatment handed out to those onboard the MV Portland.
At 1am on Wednesday last week, crew members aboard the Alcoa ship, the MV Portland, were taken from their bunks by up to 30 security guards and marched off the vessel.
They had been sacked and replaced by overseas workers on as little as $2 an hour, paying no tax and working for international companies operating out of tax havens.
I know the Portland well – I was a seafarer in my twenties on its maiden voyage from Korea to Australia.
The ship was the first training vessel for the new ‘integrated rating qualification’ which meant non-officers and engineers on the ship were multi-skilled and provided part of the basis for the revitalisation of Australian shipping by dramatically cutting the number and cost of an Australian ship’s crew.
The ship was built by Alcoa. To this day, I hold “IR ticket 001”. I can vividly imagine the fear and surprise the crew would have felt when men dressed in black invaded their small rooms and threw them out. They were handed a letter by the ship’s captain but had no time to read it, nor assess whether it was given under duress. The crew at one stage thought they could be under terrorist attack.
The move is of questionable legality, including extreme bullying and harassment and that will be tested in coming months. This is an Australian workplace by any definition.
The ship never leaves Australian territory.
There are plenty of questions for the Government here. How did the foreign crew gain permission to enter the country and sail the vessel once the Australian crew was unloaded?
Where were the new crew from? What security and criminal checks do they have? What visa are they on?
Perhaps even more seminal, has the Federal Government really changed since the infamous waterfront dispute in 1998 when security guards were sent into the Patrick’s docks in the dead of night to forcibly remove an Australian workforce?
As you would expect in a dispute which went for two months, the MV Portland dispute was subject to Fair Work Commission hearings and Federal Court proceedings. The Federal Court never found against the union.
Minister for Employment Michaelia Cash said during the dispute that it’s not up to industrial parties to pick and choose which decisions of the Fair Work Commission they will abide by. If not, the entire integrity of the system is put at risk.
Okay then, let’s apply that logic to the Senate.
In October, the Government issued a temporary license to Alcoa allowing them to engage a foreign crew on a domestic shipping route between Western Australia and Portland for 12 months.
Yet Australia has cabotage laws which state that ships trading through domestic ports are to be Australian flagged and crewed and this position was retained in November.
Apparently, Labor, Greens and the crossbench are not prepared to send Aussie jobs offshore and open up a domestic transport mode to the security risk of unchecked foreign crews.
Sensible Senators know that we shouldn’t be promoting Flag-of-Convenience shipping, which is essentially a tax avoidance scam by registering your vessel in Liberia or Mongolia and then paying your workers as little as possible – if you pay them at all.
Besides, there is an ongoing Senate inquiry into Flag-of-Convenience shipping which is yet to report.
So by Minister Cash’s own logic, the Government should cancel the licence, right? Apparently not.
Before the forum began, Senators voiced their disapproval of the way the Turnbull Government has handled the sacking of the crew of the MV Portland.
Independent senator Jacquie Lambie slammed as “disgusting” the government’s backing of Alcoa’s decision telling The Australian newspaper it defied the wishes of the Senate.
Independent Senator John Madigan said that granting the licenses was a “back-door way” of getting through the coastal shipping legislation after the Senate defeat.
At the forum he said the Government needs to offer a level playing field and the future of coastal shipping should not be a race to the bottom.
Australian Motoring Enthusiast Party Senator Ricky Muir said he would like to see outcomes driven by industry.
He said we are an island nation and we need a shipping industry and once we lose a skill set it takes a long time for it to build back up.
All of this goes to the heart of whether Australian workers have fundamental entitlements to continue to work in their own country.
Multiple decisions of the Government have left many Australian seafarers in the precarious situation where they have no right at all to work in their own industry and employers can bring in any foreign labour they wish, at any rate of pay.
Malcolm Turnbull said when he was appointed as Prime Minister that he would have a different approach to Tony Abbott in dealing with the crossbench, and indeed with the community. It seems not all of his ministers got that memo.
In the meantime, my old workplace, the MV Portland, has sailed into the night, leaving its crew jobless and serious questions unanswered in its wake.
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