Thursday, June 24, 2021

Trouble Down Under as Maritime Unions Fight on Three Fronts

All is Not Well in Australian Waters and Ports
Shipping News Feature

AUSTRALIA – It is a busy time for maritime union interests at the moment with recent protests outside Parliament and the office of the Northern Territory (NT) Chief Health Officer over subjects ranging from the flagging of vessels to the coronavirus outbreak.

The Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) is firstly incensed by the fact that, while 98% of the country’s imports and exports arrive by sea, only 12 Australian flagged and crewed cargo ships still operate. It points out that Australia’s fuel security is even more precarious, with not one Australian registered oil tanker remaining in the fleet.

Last year we wrote of how the ore carrier MV Portland was boarded and her crew allegedly forcibly removed after the ship was sold to be replaced by a foreign flagged and crewed replacement. Until 2016 the vessel had been trading on the same domestic route for 27 years. Ten of the crew had occupied the ship for two months after reading in the media that she had been sold and their jobs were forfeit.

Last week former crew members of the MV Portland, who had staged the 62-day protest in their effort to save Australian seafaring jobs, were joined by Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese and members of parliament for the launch of a documentary about their struggle.

The ‘MV Portland- A Documentary’ can be shown publicly for the first time after the seafarers and their union, the Maritime Union of Australia, were successful in a five-year legal battle against the Fair Work Ombudsman, which had accused them of engaging in unlawful industrial action when they refused to leave the ship.

MUA National Secretary Paddy Crumlin said shipping was an essential industry that was the backbone of the nation’s economy, but the Federal Government was making a choice to allow Australia seafarers to be replaced with exploited foreign workers. Plainly enraged he commented:

“The Morrison Government hasn’t just stood by and watched the decline of Australian shipping, they have actively approved the replacement of Australian ships with foreign flag vessels crewed by exploited workers paid as little as $2 per hour. Many of these vessels work exclusively on the Australian coast, moving cargoes between Australian ports, yet the Federal Government issues them temporary licenses that allow them to avoid local wages and conditions.

“Since the Coalition Government was elected in 2013, we’ve lost half our remaining fleet of Australian cargo vessels, taking with them the jobs of more than 500 Australian seafarers. This campaign isn’t just about getting Australian seafarers back up the gangways of Australian ships, it’s about the importance of a strong shipping industry to the economic success of an island nation.

“The importance of fixing this broken system has been highlighted by Covid, with international ship owners using the crisis to gouge freight rates, seriously impacting Australian businesses. These same ship owners are responsible for keeping exploited seafarers effectively imprisoned on vessels, with hundreds of thousands unable to return home to their families for more than a year.

“As an island nation, we need to be reliant on ourselves, which means having a strategic fleet that can ensure our fuel security and keep essential goods supplied during a conflict, economic crisis, or pandemic. Australia is a great trading nation with a fantastic merchant navy tradition, yet the Morrison Government continues to preside over the demise of Australian shipping for purely ideological reasons.”

Turning to the pandemic, the protest at the NT Chief Health Officer’s building was with regard to a demand for the immediate release of 13 dock workers, or wharfies, detained in the Howard Springs quarantine facility. Whilst a vessel involved, the Tacoma Trader had been cleared by the WA Department of Health and allowed to berth in Port Hedland earlier this week, the crew continued to be quarantined despite negative Covid tests, something the MUA and Unions MT say is a ‘face saving exercise’.

Meanwhile in Fremantle the Port Authority has been accused by the MUA of significantly escalating an industrial dispute at the Kwinana Bulk Terminal where workers are undertaking industrial action which the union says is their legal right. It says the dispute follows a forensic audit which found more than 100 Fremantle Ports workers had been underpaid more than A$3.5 million across the last six years, with some short-changed more than A$10,000 a year.

That audit was undertaken in the context of revelations of alleged corruption by a former Fremantle Ports manager who is accused of funnelling more than A$5 million from the WA Government-owned port operator to offshore bank accounts. MUA WA Assistant Branch Secretary Jeff Cassar said:

“Fremantle Ports have taken limited work stoppages and bans and escalated them into a significant industrial dispute which is already impacting customers. What had been staggered one-hour stoppages, spread across workgroups to reduce the potential impacts on terminal operations, have become complete shut downs because of Fremantle Ports’ decision to stand down all workers whenever any workgroup is undertaking lawful industrial action.

“When the union first raised potential underpayments, Fremantle Ports claimed there wasn’t an issue because wages were audited annually, but those same audits failed to identify an alleged corrupt scheme that was syphoning millions of dollars into offshore bank accounts. We commissioned FTI Consulting to undertake a forensic audit of wages, which uncovered wholesale underpayments across Fremantle Ports’ operations. That examination revealed that approximately 100 employees of Fremantle Ports had been underpaid an average of $6,000 a year for at least six years.”

“Our members have also been imposing a ban on working vessels that have been at sea less than 14 days in a bid to reduce the risk of Covid transmission into the WA community from international seafarers. Workers are simply exercising their legal industrial rights in an effort to negotiate a new enterprise agreement that reflects industry standards, yet Fremantle Ports are responding in an aggressive and heavy-handed manner that threatens a massive escalation, causing significant port delays.”