Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Merchant Navy Day Sees Maritime Unions Take a Swipe at Current Crewing Practices

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UK – AUSTRALIA – WORLDWIDE – This year's Merchant Navy Day, September 3, is being widely celebrated, particularly by maritime unions at home and abroad. Australia is one place witnessing ceremonies commemorating the sacrifice of the one in eight Australian merchant seafarers who lost their lives during World War II, fighting to maintain the supply chain of goods and materials so essential to maintain the war effort.

Merchant Navy Day is commemorated each year to remember this sacrifice by all involved, marking the anniversary of the sinking of the first Allied merchant vessel during World War II on September 3, 1939, and this year Australians have been urged to pause today to remember the significant contribution seafarers have made to the country’s security and economic success, and the importance of the industry to the nation’s future.

Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) national secretary and International Transport Workers' Federation president Paddy Crumlin said that it was important to remember that these sacrifices continued outside war, with merchant mariners integral to the prosperity of his island nation, commenting:

“More than 800 Australian merchant mariners sacrificed their lives for the Allied cause during the First and Second World Wars. Merchant Navy Day, which this year falls on the 80th anniversary of Australia entering World War II, is an opportunity to honour their lives and remember their fellow seafarers who bravely carried out their duties despite knowing the extreme dangers they faced. Just this year, the wreck of the SS Iron Crown was finally located, 77 years after it was sunk by a Japanese submarine off the coast of Victoria, claiming the lives of 38 of the 43 crew.

”While the risks during war were greatly amplified, particularly due to the use of submarines, seafarers continued to make significant sacrifices during peace-time for the sake of ensuring supplies of goods and raw materials to and from our island nation. Just last month, on the 50th anniversary of the sinking of the MV Noongah off Smoky Cape on the NSW mid north coast of NSW, we stood with the family members of the 21 crew who died.

“Without seafarers, Australia’s economy would grind to a halt. These are the people who transport Australia’s exports, supply the country with fuel and commodities, and ensure the overwhelming majority of everyday products are available to the community. In recent decades, the number of Australian-crewed vessels has been slashed, not only costing thousands of jobs, but leaving the country vulnerable to global conflicts or economic shocks that disrupt maritime trade.

“Currently, both Queensland and Victoria are undertaking inquiries into the important role of coastal shipping and the actions needed to strengthen the industry, but we need urgent action at the Federal level to ensure the ongoing viability of the industry. During past conflicts, Australian-owned vessels crewed by Australian seafarers were available to ensure our supply lines remained in place, but decades of neglect has seen the industry hollowed out.

“Australia is now almost entirely dependent on foreign flag of convenience vessels, often registered in tax havens and crewed by exploited visa workers on as little as A$2 per hour, to supply our fuel, carry our resources, and move cargo around the coast. One of the key lessons of World War II was the importance of having skilled, experienced seafarers to maintain supply lines during times of conflict. It is essential that as a nation we don’t forget it.”

Mr Crumlin said inadequacies in Australian shipping laws had been highlighted recently after the owners of a Panamanian flagged oil tanker escaped penalties for failing to pay the crew the legal minimum wage while carrying out coastal shipping over several years. He explained:

“The Fair Work Ombudsman prosecuted Transpetrol, who were operating using a temporary licence from the Federal Government, after finding that the crew had been underpaid more than $250,000 while undertaking 10 voyages between Australian ports. While the company eventually paid the wages that were owed, the Federal Court refused to issue any further penalties, effectively giving a slap on the wrist to a company involved in the ongoing, systemic exploitation of foreign seafarers along our coast.

“This prosecution demonstrated once again that the current legal protections that are meant to protect Australian shipping and prevent the exploitation of foreign seafarers are feeble, ineffective, and in urgent need of reform.”

There are of course two sides to the Transpetrol case. The company was unaware of the necessity to pay higher wages when in Australian waters, a fact conceded by the Ombudsman leading to the following comment from Honour Justice Rares:

“In my opinion, the Ombudsman has not made good her claims for relief. Indeed, I think that she overreached in initially seeking total penalties in the range of $81,680 to $93,840 for the three contraventions. Nothing in the facts merited penalties being sought in such significant amounts.”

A message of support, with a similar tone of that from the MUA, came from the merchant seafarers union RMT, which today flew the Red Ensign, the flag of the UK Merchant Navy from Maritime House in London and Regional Offices across the country in celebration of the importance of Merchant Navy Day and in support of the Seafarers UK appeal for all flagpole owners to do so. RMT General Secretary, Mick Cash even managing to include the inevitable ‘B’ word, when he said:

“As a proud Ratings Union, RMT celebrates the historic and contemporary contribution of our merchant seafarers to our national fortunes. Whilst we remember the merchant navy seafarers of the past, we applaud the work of those moving the freight and passengers that make our economy tick today. We also look to the future with a cast iron guarantee to our members that UK Ratings will not be left behind by any future, post-Brexit administration.”

Photo: The SS Iron Crown, lost at sea when torpedoed by a Japanese submarine on 4 June 1942 with the loss of 38 of her 43 strong crew. The last survivor, George Fisher, passed away in 2012.