The Sydney Branch of the Maritime Union of Australia and International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) have invited the 14 crew on board the Hanjin California to visit union headquarters in Sussex Street next Tuesday as a gesture of international solidarity.
The vessel has been stuck in Sydney Harbour for several weeks due to the shipping giant’s collapse, with no end in sight.
The Federal Court is demanding that the international owners of the ship produce evidence to show why the vessel should not be sold, with over $1.1 million in debt allegedly owed.
Captain Matwiejczk Wojciech told Sydney’s Daily Telegraph newspaper earlier this week his men were coping despite having no idea when they would be allowed to leave port.
"We have been allowed to take some shore leave and we are getting along fine with the supplies we have with us," he said.
A letter from NSW Branch Deputy Secretary Paul Keating today invited the crew to visit the MUA building next Tuesday and enjoy a bite to eat thanks to the generosity of MUA members.
“As a strong and active maritime union we understand the hardships and challenges that seafarers face every day and appreciate the added burden that your ship and crew are currently involved in,” Mr Keating’s letter says.
“Our dockers, seafarers, port workers, staff and officials look very much forward to joining your crew in this international gesture of solidarity and support."
The 40,000-tonne freighter was transporting airconditioners, furniture, building supplies, electronics, frozen produce and stock for Christmas.
The Port Authority of NSW allowed it to unload cargo after it was arrested at Port Botany.
The crew, made up of Filipino, Indonesian and Polish workers, are among many around the world who have been caught up in the fall of Hanjin Shipping Company.
South Korea's biggest shipping company filed for bankruptcy in the US on August 3.
Creditors are now swooping on ships as they enter ports with a vessel like the Hanjin California worth about $20 million.
Mr Summers said the situation was messy because the Israeli owners of the ship were trying to force the Dutch operators of the vessel to pay the outstanding debts.
"The problem is when a ship is placed under arrest people start lining up around the block to get their share,” he said.
"As it stands the crew have plenty of food and now we are hoping for a quick resolution so the crew can either operate the ship for new owners or get paid so they can fly home." The shipping giant operates about 60 regular lines worldwide, with 140 container or bulk vessels and is the world's ninth largest container shipping company, transporting over 100 million tonnes of cargo a year.
It lost $15 billion as a result of the global financial crisis, including $1.1 billion in 2009.The Federal Court now has control over the ship with a hearing set down for October 6 to resolve the dispute, which means the crew could face the real possibility of being trapped for a further month.
But the situation is more difficult in the US, where ITF inspector Jeff Engels said the crew of the Hanjin Marine berthed in Seattle had been refused shore leave by the US Customs and Border Patrol. That crew has also been paid and has two months’ food onboard.
According to Engels, US customs “insisted that the crew was a possible threat to try and jump ship due to the Hanjin situation”.
“I countered with the fact that shore leave was a human right and that the seafarers should not be made to suffer due to the Hanjin situation ... they still did not budge.”
The ITF president, Paddy Crumlin, said the past three Hanjin vessels that called in at southern California all had similar issues with shore leave.
In Australia, another Hanjin-chartered ship, the Hanjin Milano, has waited off the coast near Melbourne for two weeks without a decision on whether it should come into port to unload and risk the vessel being seized.
Summers said it was “very uncommon” to have a fleet of ships this large seized as part of bankruptcy proceedings.
The Hanjin Shipping Company operates about 60 regular lines worldwide, with 140 container vessels, and is the world’s ninth-largest container shipping company.
“It’s a sign of the times and the pressures on international markets. There’s an oversupply of shipping and it’s not unusual that seafarers are treated badly,” Mr Summers said.
He cited reports of a crew stranded off the Queensland coast who reportedly were not paid in more than two months.
The ITF and the Maritime Union of Australia have been conducting a campaign against an Australian government bill to open up domestic shipping to more foreign-crewed ships and its practice of issuing temporary licenses the unions say allows for increasing use of “flag-of-convenience” ships.
A Senate inquiry into flag-of-convenience ships has heard union concerns that there were poor checks on both the background and welfare of their crews. The inquiry will continue now parliament has resumed after the 2 July election.
Mr Summers said the bankruptcy of the Hanjin Shipping Company showed the potentially “disastrous” consequences of relying on flag-of-convenience ships for Australian domestic coastal trade.
The infrastructure and transport minister, Darren Chester, has refuted claims foreign crews are not subject to background checks and said the number of temporary licenses issued under Coalition and Labor government had “largely stayed the same”.
A US Customs and Border Patrol spokesman told Guardian Australia: “CBP officers have discretionary authority to determine if a foreign national crew member meets all admissibility requirements including their intent to return to the vessel.”
He said its officers were “mindful of the humanitarian aspects in their mission” and foreign nationals could get special permission to disembark for “exigent circumstances, such as seeking medical attention”.