Cheap Tricks

As a federal election moves closer it is no surprise to see the usual suspects line up, over the past few weeks, to criticise the Maritime Union of Australia's latest enterprise bargaining agreement for offshore oil and gas workers.

The new pay deal, negotiated between the MUA and Total Marine Services, goes some way to closing the gap between MUA seafarers and other workers in the offshore industries with an incremental 30 per cent increase in wages over three years. 

Under the arrangement, workers employed for a full year and working entirely on vessels engaged in construction could potentially earn a maximum $180,000.   Since its announcement, a concerted campaign has been waged to discredit the union, its members and the EBA by the Murdoch-owned press, the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the Australian Mines and Metals Association (AMMA), the Western Australian government and federal Senator Eric Abetz, amongst others.

Industrial relations is emerging as a key divisive issue for Australia's two major political parties, as it was during the 2007 election campaign. 

With the Rudd Government's Fair Work legislation replacing John Howard's WorkChoices Act, political opponents of the Labor Government point to the MUA's pay increases as an example of how the new IR rules allow unions to 'hold the industry to ransom', to quote the AMMA's Stephen Knott. 

Senator Abetz, the Opposition Spokesman on Workplace Relations, in a moment of gross inaccuracy, claimed the EBA would deliver MUA offshore workers annual salaries of "230,000 a year".

Such scaremongering and political posturing is hardly surprising.  What is offensive to the MUA's offshore workers, however, are comments from Senator Abetz publicly ridiculing their skills and competencies.  His attacks include a claim that MUA members will be paid $20 per plate washed and a description of MUA members as "basic cooks and bottle washers".

MUA members aboard ships, which include integrated ratings personnel, caterers and stewards, are responsible for assisting medics in the provision of first-aid in emergencies, fire fighting and helicopter operations.  One would hope that they are adequately trained and competent.

Ben Hansen, chief cook aboard the Rockwater 2, is finishing a 12-hour shift as the ship steams across the Southern Ocean en route to Singapore, following the early completion of a construction job in the Bass Strait. 

With Morrissey blaring from his mp3's docking station, the 42-year-old from New South Wales scrubs the galley deck as one of his final tasks for the day. 

When asked how he feels about Senator Abetz describing him as a 'basic cook' he laughs knowingly.  "I'm sure he probably ate at some of Sydney's best restaurants when I was learning how to cook," he jokes. 

Ben undertook a four-year apprenticeship to learn his trade and worked in kitchens for 20 years before entering the offshore industry.

Working 12-hour shifts, seven days a week for four weeks, away from loved ones, one would hope to be adequately compensated - particularly in an industry that delivers such vast profits to the companies involved and their shareholders. 

Ben is a father of six children, aged between five months and 20 years and his story is representative of many maritime workers. 

"I've got a four year old son and I've not been home for one of his birthdays," he says. 

"In the five years I've been working offshore I've been home for just one Christmas.  It's a stress on family life and I've seen some people's marriages end as a result."  

But Ben doesn't want or expect sympathy.  With his father and grandfather former maritime workers, Ben was aware of the nature of the industry he was entering.

Casual employees make up 80 per cent of MUA members working in the offshore oil and gas industry.  Marine services companies are reluctant to employ permanent staff as the industry can have equally busy and quiet periods. 

With the Rockwater 2 finishing work several weeks ahead of schedule - thanks to some good weather and the professionalism of all workers onboard - few of its seafarers are sure of where their next job or pay packet will come from.  Before this job started in December most crew had not worked for the two months prior and there is no guaranteed work ahead on the horizon.

Eric Abetz's failure to recognise the value of a seafarer's work and complete disregard for the facts appear a poor attempt at the politics of envy from the Liberal senator. 

MUA members and the Australian public deserve a greater level of maturity, respect and accuracy from their elected representatives.