Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Government Sternly Criticised Over Flag of Convenience Regulation after Three Suspicious Deaths

Tales of Gun Running, Murder and Mayhem Bring Finger Pointing Report
Shipping News Feature
AUSTRALIA – WORLDWIDE – There are few subjects in the field of labour relations that are more contentious than the use by ship owners and managers of flags of convenience solely for the purpose of cutting overheads, particularly crew wages. We have touched on this many times over the years and, whilst the tactic is not necessarily a sign of a poor operator, union bodies frequently cite the practice when condemning it as an excuse to circumvent negotiated wage agreements.

Now, following on from previous criticisms, the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) has quoted from the new Australian Senate Inquiry into Flag of Convenience (FOC) Shipping report. When the list of recommendations from such a work mentions that clarity of how deaths at sea occur should be addressed immediately by an Ombudsman funded by government, it has the tendency to make one pay attention.

Indeed, in true Aussie style, this is a report which pulls no punches, placing the responsibility for policing FOC vessels squarely on the administration of Mr Turnbull, a sentiment fully concurred with by the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF). In addition to the labour situation there are concerns over Australia’s national security framework just one day after a Government announcement to create a new Ministry of Home Affairs. The report notes that, while a significant proportion of legitimate sea trade is conducted by ships with FOC registration, there are features of such registration, regulation and practice that organised crime syndicates or terrorist groups may seek to exploit.

Points to note include a lack of transparency of the true identity of ship owners and consequent impediment to holding the owner to account for a ship’s actions, plus insufficient flag state regulatory enforcement and adherence to standards in countries which include such registries as Liberia, Panama and the Marshall Islands. The Senate report states:

“The committee maintains that [FOC] vessels present serious security risks to the Australian coast, which need to be properly addressed. The committee takes the view that, by not agreeing to review the current state of the maritime sector in Australia, the government is failing to address the serious security, economic, human rights and environmental vulnerabilities in the sector.”

Pretty strong stuff, and unsurprisingly Paddy Crumlin, the loquacious ITF President, was quick to state the unions position, saying:

“The Turnbull Government has allowed Australian seafarers to be replaced by FOC lawlessness that now threatens our very national security. Under their legislative abuses Australian seafarers, properly trained, security-screened and resident taxpayers have been sacked and their jobs in a domestic transport sector given away to whoever comes over the horizon without a word of inquiry about their background.

“The solution is simple, stop destroying and start supporting and growing our domestic shipping industry and the Australian working men and women that work there and in doing so we will help keep our borders safe.”

The ITF applauded the committee’s call for a comprehensive whole-of-government review into the potential economic, security and environmental risks presented by FOC shipping and ITF National Coordinator Dean Summers said the Inquiry had officially laid bare the murky world of convenience flagged shipping that the Turnbull Government has so far chosen to ignore. He continued:

“The Senate Inquiry heard multiple accounts of the very worst of what FOC shipping has to offer - murders, gun-running, intimidation, bullying, harassment and slave labour. The appalling case of multiple murders at sea on board the Sage Sagittarius was the basis for this Inquiry and serves as a shocking reminder of what can happen when an entire industry is little more than a race to the bottom.”

The Panamanian registered Sage Sagittarius was the scene of three mysterious deaths which, put simply, avoided proper investigation in that authorities in Australia and Japan seemingly lacked the authority to pursue possible criminal acts. Two Filipinos, a chef who disappeared overboard and an engineer found dead aboard with head injuries were deemed the victims of foul play by an Australian coroner, yet no action could be taken despite evidence heard of illegal arms transactions, crew intimidation and the erasure of the ship’s voyage data recorder on the day the chef vanished.

The new report from the Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport References Committee says it was very concerned by FOC vessels carrying dangerous goods around Australia’s coast, including ammonium nitrate and petroleum products. Last financial year, only 1,072 of the 15,715 commercial vessels arriving in Australia were searched by the Australian Border Force. It goes on to state:

“The committee is very disturbed by the many examples of job losses, poor working conditions, inadequate wages and deaths and disappearances at sea. To have seafarers disappearing and dying in and around Australian waters, and while in transit to Australian ports is unacceptable.”

Among the recommendations from the Senate group is the requirement for the Fair Work Ombudsman (FWO) to implement an inspection program, funded by the government, for ships with foreign seafarers, in order to verify paid wages meet Australian legal requirements. Also the Federal Government should implement clear procedures on how to respond to deaths that occur on ships travelling in or to Australian waters and consider legislative amendments to provide clarity on jurisdictional responsibility for investigating such deaths.

Another key recommendation is for the re-establishment of an advisory body made up of key maritime industry stakeholders to advise government on new Australian shipping policies and workforce development and training opportunities, and for the Federal Government to effectively review the potential economic, security and environmental risks presented by FOC vessels and foreign crew.

Photo: The New Flame a cargo vessel flying under the Panamanian flag, which collided with another ship off Gibraltar in 2007.