Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Dock Workers Claim Vindication as Shipping Lines Blamed for Delays and Accused of Profiteering

Union Also Criticises Ineffective Maritime Covid-19 Protocols as Hard Border Inland Persists
Shipping News Feature

AUSTRALIA – The Maritime Union of Australia (MUA), whose 'wharfies', or dockers, were being blamed by Patrick Terminals, which operates the Port Botany freight facility, for the delays incurred there by shipping companies, says it has been vindicated after a recent meeting between the Freight & Trade Alliance (FTA) / Australian Peak Shippers Association (ASA) and Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack.

The union has also taken a swipe at the Covid-19 precautions, or lack of them, being taken elsewhere in the country. First however a look at how the excessive delays, and increased costs to shippers, have blighted the Port Botany quayside for some considerable time.

As reported by the FTA, which represents traders, customs brokers, freight forwarders and others in logistics, and the APSA designated by the Federal Minister of Infrastructure and Transport to protect the interests of Australia’s cargo owners and shippers in respect to shipping and international logistics, the meeting revealed some interesting facts.

The FTA and APSA work hand in glove and, rather than hang the blame on industrial action, the pair pointed to ‘crippling shipping line fees’ which persist despite the MUA returning to full operations at all Port Botany container stevedoring operations. It seems that the major international shipping lines are maintaining a 'Port Botany Congestion Surcharge' ranging from US $285 to $350 per TEU, despite resumption of full operations and statements from all three stevedore executives suggesting successful finalisation of enterprise agreements could be achieved in coming weeks.

Shipping Australia Ltd (SAL), which represents ship owners and agents, commented that despite the ‘cease fire’ between union and management, and with no visible queue of vessels, significant costs are still incurred by shipping lines anchored elsewhere around Australia or slow steaming to Port Botany, a comment which was derided by the FTA/APSA. They questioned whether shipping lines are potentially 'double-dipping' gaining penalty revenue from both their supplier (stevedore) and customer (exporter, importer or freight forwarder).

The pair went on to seek details from SAL on how many vessels are affected, with the assumption that many shipping lines would have adjusted their scheduling over the last few weeks as reflected by the high number of blank sailings, vessels by-passing Sydney, and those no longer taking bookings to Sydney.

The delegation urged the Federal Government to undertake competition law reform and increased regulation to address unfair charging regimes including the explosion of shipping line surcharges, stevedore-imposed Infrastructure surcharges and empty container park transport booking fees.

The MUA say the meeting revealed continuing problems with congestion at Port Botany are as a result of poor systems, insisting delays are caused by a surplus of 30,000 empty containers in NSW, with Port Botany and Sydney empty container parks having no space left and shipping lines having neglected to bring in sweeper vessels (ships meant to pick up empty containers) to deal with the large surplus. According to FTA and APSA secretariat director Paul Zalai:

"The lack of transparency poses many questions and frustrations, turning the spotlight away from the core industrial relations dispute, to one of opportunistic shipping line practices that appear to be primarily focused on recovering costs to extend record profits reported during the pandemic and global economic downturn."

The Covid-19 pandemic also figured large on another MUA report. The recent arrival of the iron ore bulk carrier Vega Dream with seven infected crew members in the port of Port Hedland provides a stark reminder to the Western Australia community of the need for tougher measures. The MUA says mining group BHP and Pilbara Ports have no special procedures in place to deal with vessels that arrive in Western Australia after spending less than 14 days at sea.

Prior to the discovery of Covid-19, the crew of the Vega Dream had direct contact with BHP’s day shift employees interacting with the vessel. Each vessel arriving in a Western Australian Port is boarded by a Marine Pilot who manoeuvres the vessel into the port. Marine Pilots have direct exposure to the ship’s crew and are only provided with gloves and a face mask. Once the vessel is moored, the Pilot then returns to the community without any significant oversight.

The ship’s crew are permitted to depart the vessel to undertake ship’s functions alongside Western Australian Port Services employees and wharfies with as little as a facemask to mitigate the risk. Chris Cain, National President & State Secretary of the Western Australia Branch of the MUA criticised what he said were misleading comments, saying:

“The McGowan government would have you believe that the vessel remained anchored off the coast of Port Hedland. When the crew were found to be infected with Covid-19, the Vega Dream was alongside in G Berth on Finucane Island, right in the heart of the port of Port Hedland.

“The government is quick to remind us of the economic pressure preventing the implementation of a mandatory 14-day isolation for vessels arriving from Coronavirus hotspots. What the Government doesn’t tell you is that this same economic pressure when placed directly on the Master of a vessel prevents transparent reporting of symptomatic crew members.

“The McGowan government expects a seafarer who stands to lose his job over reporting a suspected case of Covid to report it and cause substantial delays to a vessel and significant economic loss to the shipowner, this is crazy stuff. We need to be very clear, there are no doctors on these ships.

“While the vessel was alongside, the crew of the Vega Dream stayed on the vessel and instead used a bucket over the side of the vessel to pass Ipads and paperwork to BHP employees. There were no special measures put in place, and after receiving the items from the crew members, the employees went back to work driving vehicles and operating ship loaders as normal.What we have here is the government putting the profits of the mining companies over the safety of the Western Australia people. BHP and the Western Australia Government are not telling the whole truth.

“It beggars belief that while the government excludes Western Australia citizens from their own state and rigidly enforces a so called hard border, the government is recklessly exposing our maritime border by asking seafarers from developing nations and global hotspots to self-manage the states security and confirm they have carried out a 14 day quarantine.”

At the time of writing Australia has seen around 27,500 confirmed cases with 900+ deaths. Western Australia has witnessed 738 cases in total, and just 9 deaths, compared to Victoria which has had over 20,000 cases and more than 800 fatalities.