Tuesday, August 11, 2020

Australian Maritime Union Cries Out for Safety and Equality with US Domestic Shipping Regulations

Beirut Blast Shows Up Frailty of Flags of Convenience as Ongoing Protest Adjudged Legal
Shipping News Feature

AUSTRALIA – The Maritime Union of Australia (MUA), now known as the Construction, Forestry, Maritime, Mining and Energy Union, but still for some reason sending news items out under the old name, chose not to comment directly on the tragedy in Beirut. Whilst similar international unions such as the ILWU decried the loss of port and logistics workers' lives, the MUA focused on the dangers to its own members, choosing to express regret via International Transport Federation President and MUA National Secretary, Paddy Crumlin's own ITF statement expressing shock and sorrow.

The union has called on the Australian government for an urgent overhaul of security and licensing provisions for shipments of dangerous and high consequence goods, such as ammonium nitrate which killed and injured so many in Lebanon last week. The foreign flags of convenience used to service such domestic trade would be unthinkable in the United States where the Jones Act is the rule of law.

The MUA says such craft, like the unseaworthy Russian-owned, Moldovan-flagged Rhosus which delivered the explosive material to Beirut before she was abandoned by her owners, pose a constant threat as the Australian Government continues to issue temporary licences for vessels to carry such deadly cargoes without ensuring they adhere to Australian safety standards, and without security checks on the crew members on board.

The union states that, whilst Australian seafarers are required to undergo thorough security checks before being issued Maritime Security Identification Cards, foreign workers on flag-of-convenience vessels are exempt from these checks, instead being issued a Maritime Crew Visa without any background checks. Describing the situation as a ‘ticking time bomb on Australia’s coast’, Paddy Crumlin continued:

“The situation in Beirut, where a dangerous cargo arrived on an unseaworthy flag-of-convenience vessel that lacked the ability to safely store it, could easily be repeated in Australia. Dangerous goods like weapons-grade ammonium nitrate come in and out of Australian ports on flag-of-convenience ships without any process to ensure they can safely carry that dangerous cargo, or that their crew members don’t pose security risks.

“The porous and substandard level of background checks on foreign workers through the Maritime Crew Visa, which is issued electronically without background checks, is completely inadequate and inappropriate for such high consequence cargoes. This coastal and international shipping trade has been left open to the lowest bidders who utilise exploited foreign crews who are often extremely fatigued due to spending more than a year at sea.

“Last year, 85,000 tonnes of ammonium nitrate moved through the Port of Newcastle alone, 30 times the amount that devastated Beirut, posing a significant threat to safety. The Australian Government must urgently tighten shipping regulations to ensure dangerous goods are carried on vessels that are registered in Australia and crewed by Australian seafarers who have undergone appropriate training and security checks.

“Using Australian owned, operated and crewed ships for the transport of dangerous goods is a simple way to ensure safety standards are met, significantly reducing the danger posed by shipping. This would also ensure that all seafarers moving this cargo have undergone the strict background checks and ongoing compliance that is required to be issued with a Maritime Security Identification Card.”

What Mr Crumlin describes is precisely what the Jones Act mandates in the US for domestic shipping, home built, home crewed vessels with absolutely no foreign input, and this week the union described an affair closely linked with the comparison between US and Australian regulations as a ‘major legal victory’.

The seafarers and the MUA have been in a four-and-a-half year legal battle with the Fair Work Ombudsman, which is seeking fines and damages over allegations the crew’s refusal to leave the vessel constituted unlawful industrial action. In November 2015, the crew found out from media reports that Alcoa, a US industrial corporation, was planning to sack 40 Australian seafarers and sell the MV Portland, which had been carrying alumina from Kwinana in Western Australia to its Portland Aluminium Smelter in Victoria for 27 years.

The 10 seafarers on board refused to sail the vessel to Singapore, where it was to be sold, occupying the vessel for two months before they were forcibly removed by security guards in the dead of night and replaced by a foreign crew. Now, in Federal Court, Justice Mordecai Bromberg ruled in favour of the MUA’s argument that a clause in the vessel’s employment agreement that stated it was in place ‘whilst the vessel operates in the trade’ meant it had ceased to apply at the time of the sit-in.

In his judgement, Justice Bromberg said that given the critical nature of this argument to the FWO’s case, it would seem to follow that the substantive proceeding should be dismissed. The Portland was of course en route to Singapore to be sold or scrapped. MUA Assistant National Secretary Ian Bray said the decision was a significant win for the seafarers involved, commenting:

“For four-and-a-half years, the Fair Work Ombudsman has pursued legal action against the union and our members, refusing numerous attempts to mediate a resolution and instead taking it to trial in the Federal Court. The ruling by Justice Bromberg, which confirms the long-argued position of the MUA and our members that the employment agreement ceased to operate once Alcoa announced the MV Portland was being replaced from service, blows a hole in the FWO case.

“This is a significant victory for the 10 brave Australian seafarers who spent two months on board this vessel, without pay, in an effort to defend one of the few remaining Australian-registered vessels trading on our coast. After four long years, this not only brings us a step closer to averting fines for our members, it could be a watershed industrial relations decision with significant implications for other workers. Every step of the way, the Federal Government has been supporting the loss of these skilled jobs.

“They issued the temporary licences required to use foreign flag-of-convenience vessels to undertake this trade around the Australian coast, they granted the visas for the foreign crew who were flown in to replace these seafarers, and they then set their industrial relations attack dog on them. Rather than support Australian jobs, we have seen successive Coalition governments continue the decimation of Australia’s maritime supply chains, leaving the nation almost completely dependent on foreign vessels to move essential goods around our coastline.

“The only way multi-national companies like Alcoa have been able to get away with slashing the jobs of Australian seafarers is because the Federal Government continues to support this race to the bottom by issuing temporary licenses to use foreign vessels with exploited crews on coastal shipping routes. Four-and-a-half years on, Alcoa is continuing to use flag-of-convenience vessels crewed by seafarers that are paid as little as $2 per hour, all while enjoying multimillion dollar taxpayer-funded subsidies from the Victorian Government.

“Despite happily taking millions from Australian taxpayers, this American multinational refuses to employ a single Australian seafarer on what is clearly a permanent domestic trading route.”

Photo: A shot of the devastation in the Port of Beirut (courtesy of the ITF)