Flags of Convenience Pose Security and Jobs Threat

A CORONIAL inquest currently underway into three mysterious deaths at sea is symptomatic of a broader union campaign to prevent the introduction of WorkChoices on Water around our coast.

Maritime Union of Australia members are keeping a close eye on proceedings at the Glebe Coroner’s Court in Sydney as investigations continue into the deaths of three Filipino seafarers.

Meanwhile, Transport Minister Warren Truss is pushing ahead with his plans to throw out the reform program of the Gillard Government and deregulate the maritime sector.

Ships of shame ‘the new normal’

In its latest assault on unionised workforces, the Abbott Government wants to rip up the Coastal Trading Act, which ensures Australian jobs and wage protections.

MUA National Secretary and International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) President Paddy Crumlin is highly critical of Truss’s move to remove cabotage, or rules which encourage investment in the local industry.

“Flag-of-Convenience shipping is riddled with morally ambiguous, and sometimes criminal, practices yet the Australian Government wants to make ships of shame the new normal rather than the extreme exception,” Mr Crumlin said.

“The Australian public deserves to know what the Flag-of-Convenience shipping alternative actually means, including its impact on national security, fuel security, jobs and the environment.

“The removal of cabotage would weaken labour and safety standards and threaten thousands of domestic jobs in Australia’s maritime sector.”

Three people died onboard the Panama-flagged coal Carrier, the MV Sage Sagittarius in 2012.

The first disappeared overboard, another fell 11 metres to his death in the engine room and the third was discovered in a coal loader when the vessel arrived back in Japan.

The crew members were scared for their lives each time investigators came onboard.

The coroner has heard allegations that guns were being sold on board and that assaults on and intimidation of the crew were widespread.

Sadly, while murder at sea is fairly uncommon, bullying, intimidation and poor pay and conditions are rife on the high seas as part of the Flag of Convenience system.

Flag-of-Convenience refers to the practice of shipping companies to register a vessel in a port based in a country with lax rules and regulations, such as Panama, Liberia or Marshall Islands. The ship then flies the flag of the “host” nation.

The purpose is to reduce operating costs or avoid regulations in the vessel’s real home country.

The MV Sage Sagittarius is Japanese-owned, Panama-flagged and mainly Filipino-crewed.

The case was covered by the ABC’s Four Corners program and the the Australian Senate last week decided to launch an inquiry into Flag-of-Convenience shipping.

The Inquiry by the Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport References Committee will examine the national security, fuel security, environmental, social and economic impacts of FOC shipping and revisit the 1992 Ships of Shame Inquiry.

Hawke-era Transport Minister Peter Morris sat in the gallery of the Glebe Coroner’s Court on Tuesday and told Australian Regional Media: “Listening to some of the proceedings today just confirmed my worst fears of yesteryear that while the conditions of the ships have improved – we’re seeing the best – for the crew and the exploitation of crews, little has changed.

ITF National Co-ordinator Dean Summers said consistently there was a high human cost involved in cheap shipping.

“The murky world of FOC shipping needs to be investigated. Intimidation, bullying and harassment are often an unfortunate part of life onboard FOC vessels and it’s allowed to happen because of jurisdictional blurred lines and a lack of regulation.”

Last month, Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) members rallied outside the Sydney hotel where Transport Minister Warren Truss announced the Government’s plans to strip the previous Labor government’s 2012 bill and instead introduce one single licence for ships taking cargo between domestic ports.

Under the proposal, workers aboard non-Australian vessels would only be subject to Australian wages and conditions if the ships trade in Australia for 183 days, or roughly six months of the annual permits.

Mr Crumlin said at the rally this would mean more Aussie maritime workers overlooked in favour of cheap foreign labour, without internationally agreed award rates.

“Warren Truss is basically removing a part of Australian industry and replacing it with an industry that comes from Liberia or Panama – no regulation, tax avoidance, low labour standards,” Mr Crumlin said.

“The Abbott Government’s changes could directly impact around 2000 direct jobs and up to 8000 associated jobs – so that’s 10,000 Aussie jobs on the chopping block.”

Political Response

The Labor opposition compared the deregulation to the draconian measures of the WorkChoices era.

“Since many shipping companies base their ships in Third World nations to minimise their pay levels and working conditions, this was an explicit statement that the Government wants to impose massive reductions in pay and conditions,” said Opposition Transport spokesman Anthony Albanese.

Opposition leader Bill Shorten said the Government hoped that “because ships are beyond the breakers and that people can’t see every employment condition in a ship, that they can get away with seeing third world conditions employed on ships which carry cargo around the Australian shoreline”.

Greens MP Adam Bandt added: “We wouldn’t bring in overseas truck drivers to carry goods on the Hume Highway at $2 an hour and we shouldn’t allow the same on our shipping lanes.”

Business lobbyists back changes

But the government has some strong support, particularly from lobbyists at the Business Council of Australia, the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, and the National Farmers’ Federation.

The lobbyists say weakening the current strong rules around cabotage would bring down costs.

In comparison, the United States has some of the strongest protections in the world for its shipping industry.

Under the Jones Act, all goods transported by water between US ports must be carried on US-flagged ships; those ships must be built domestically; and, they must be owned and crewed by US citizens and permanent residents.

Based in London, the ITF has slammed the Australian Government’s proposal, saying the US experience has been that “strong cabotage laws help support jobs as well as bolster economic and national security.”

“Especially in times of crisis, shipping is essential to national security and as a nation, you need to think twice about allowing essential skills to be placed in the hands of non-Australian interests,” said ITF seafarers’ section chair David Heindel.

“What you don’t want to see is more Flag of Convenience ships, with their questionable standards and exploited crews, take over ports and displace Australian vessels.”