Ships of Shame on Canberra's Agenda

Yesterday, International Transport Workers' Federation National Coordinator Dean Summers joined MP Anthony Albanese for a press conference to address the concerns aired in the previous night's episode of 4 Corners and to call for a Senate Inquiry in Flag-of-Convenience shipping. 

This is the Transcript of that conference:

ANTHONY ALBANESE: Thanks for joining us. I am here today with Dean Summers, who is the International Transport Federation National Coordinator.  And I'm here in response to the revelations that were shown on the Four Corners program last night. These revelations show the need for us to have a proper examination of what is going on with foreign flagged vessels around our coasts. 
In the past there has been of course the famous Ships of Shame report, which was conducted and led to Peter Morris taking action when it comes to revitalising Australian shipping. The last government, of which I was the Minister, also took action to revitalise Australian shipping, but the current government seems determined to stop the Australian flag’s existence on ships around our coast and in international waters. 
They say that it doesn’t matter whether there’s an Australian-flagged vessel or a foreign-flagged vessel around our coast – that there’s no difference in terms of Australia’s economic, environmental and national security interests. 
I say that is not the case. I say there are real issues regarding foreign-flagged ships and there’s a need, indeed, as a sovereign nation, there’s a responsibility upon us to investigate the circumstances around that.
Now we know as a result of these incidents on the ship the Sage Sagittarius, a coal freighter operating between Australia and Japan - interestingly not flagged with either the Australian flag or the Japanese flag but flagged with the Panama flag - that these incidents last night are of real concern. 
Now, I don’t prejudge what happened on that vessel. This issue is the subject of an ongoing Coronial Inquiry and that is the appropriate place for these particular incidents to be investigated. But what I do know is that it is time for a close look at the operation of foreign flagged vessels in Australian waters.
The questions that are out there include what checks, if any, are made into the backgrounds of the crew of these vessels. If you are someone working in the Australian maritime sector, either on sea or on land, you have to have a Maritime Security Identity Card.
You have to have a whole range of checks done on your character. What checks, what scrutiny is there of people who are working on foreign vessels who operate in our ports and around our coasts? It is reasonable that that be examined. Have there been any other incidents such as what is alleged to have happened with the Sage Sagittarius in Australian waters? And do Australian authorities have adequate powers to investigate such events?
Now the government has said that it will be introducing a range of reforms. They flagged that at a lunch hosted by the foreign shipping industry just a couple of weeks ago. I of course, like other Australians, haven’t had an opportunity to scrutinise that legislation. 
But what we do know is that in the Budget Paper Number 2 they have stated that one of the objectives of coastal shipping is to bring standards on Australian-based ships in line with international standards.
Now that is of real concern as a written objective because we know when it comes to international labour standards on ships, particularly those flagged with flags of convenience, is that there are real issues around the wages and conditions, around occupational health and safety, around security issues relating to these ships.
And that is why, before there’s a consideration of any legislation that says we don’t need an Australian shipping industry - that’s essentially the government’s positon - or if there is one, we want a ship that operates between Sydney and Melbourne to be able to pay Third World wages, to have Third World standards and to have Third World occupational health and safety conditions, there should be a proper examination.
Now this comes down to a pretty simple principle that will be debated out before the Parliament. The principle is this: If I want to have, instead of taking a Sydney-based truck from Sydney to Melbourne; if I want to move freight and compete with a Filipino-based truck, with Filipino standards rather than Australian standards in terms of safety on that truck; employ a Filipino truck driver; pay them Filipino wages; have Filipino occupational health and safety conditions in order to take my goods from Sydney to Melbourne, people would say that is absurd. 
That is not the Australian way. You need to have Australian wages and conditions when you are performing an Australian domestic freight task. What the government wants though is no different – whether it’s the Hume Highway from Sydney to Melbourne should also apply to the blue highway from Sydney to Melbourne. 
But they want a Filipino ship, flagged with a country of a flag of convenience, done with Filipino wages, Filipino occupational health and safety conditions to be able to that route and take those goods from Sydney to Melbourne. Now that is in my view, just an absurd proposition. 
And similarly, in terms of the cabotage arrangements that are also to be considered I understand at a meeting tonight of the government, which would free up the northern part of Australia for foreign airlines to compete on domestic routes with Australian airlines, again paying those foreign workers foreign wages and conditions and undercutting the Australian system and therefore undermining the very effective Australian aviation system that we have.
This is a government that is putting ideology before common sense. I might ask Dean Summers to make some comments as well.


DEAN SUMMERS, INTERNATIONAL TRANSPORT FEDERATION NATIONAL CO-ORDINATOR:  Thank you. The International Transport Workers Federation is calling on a Senate inquiry to expose the high cost of cheap shipping.
We have seen through the Sage Sagittarius coronial inquest the extremes that can be inflicted on vulnerable international seafarers trading Australian cargoes to international markets. 
The Sage Sagittarius is a terrible example, an extreme example of what crews have to put up with in taking our cargoes to international markets. 
On the Sage Sagittarius, a fully owned Japanese ship, every bit of that ship is Japanese except its register. 
Japanese owners NYK choose to use Panama as the country to register that vessel because Panama prostitutes its flag, ready for cheap gains so that they don’t have to have any regulatory obligation back to the real owners NYK. 
The manning goes out to the cheapest alternative. In this case it was the Filipino manning company NYK Philippines, set up by NYK under another dodgy deal so that they can separate themselves from the parent company.
So a Filipino crew trading Australia cargoes on Japanese-owned vessel to Japanese profits on the back of a Panamanian flag of convenience. What does this mean to the crew? Well, to three crew it was a death sentence. 
The first crewman, the chief cook, head of the catering department, was killed, was killed, because all of the evidence says he was about contact me as head of the ITF in Australia and complain about the rough conditions the captain was treating the mess man with. 
Two weeks later after the chief cook disappeared over the side without any trace – two weeks after – in an Australian port coming through the headlands of Newcastle the chief engineer was apparently coshed on the back of the head and falling 12m to his death on the engine room plates because he had information and he had told other people that he was frightened for his life, he was frightened for his family’s lives and this is the sort of situation and environment that the FOC engenders.
Two weeks after that the vessel sails to its destination port in Japan where the head superintendent, a man in charge of a fleet of vessels was mysteriously given the job of seeing the rollers, a squeaky roller on deck at three o'clock in the morning. 
And he was left inside those rollers for up to three hours crushed to death – a grisly, horrible, gruesome death that according to the ABC interviews on Four Corners last night his parents were frightened to talk about for fear of repercussions. Such is the flag of convenience. Such is the high cost of cheap shipping.  And if Australia is prepared to open up our coasts to cheap shipping then we should understand what that really means. It’s not cutting red tape, it's not clearing a level playing field for efficient shipping in and out of Australian ports. It means opening our coast, our ports, and our cargoes up to the worst, cheapest, nastiest shipping. 
Cheap and nasty shipping isn’t cheap but it sure is nasty and we have seen that on the Sage Sagittarius. But it’s not an isolated case. Certainly triple murder, triple deaths, unexplained deaths, are isolated thank God. But they are becoming more and more common. More and more seafarers are going missing over the side of ships coming to Australia or leaving Australia with Australian cargoes unexplained and we don’t have the capacity, the ability or even the political appetite to investigate these grisly happenings. 
If we are going to open up our coast, if this federal government wants to lay bare our coast we have to understand the true costs to our environment. We have to understand the true costs to our national security because, as Anthony has just said, every Australian maritime worker has to go through an extreme high level of background – the highest level of background and security checks – for any Australian worker - through ASIO, through the Fed Police, through the state police, through Immigration and Customs. Every one of our workers must be background security checked to the highest level. 
But is that that same on flag of convenience? Certainly not, certainly not. Theirs is the lowest. Theirs is a mere cursory check, an electronic check on a maritime crew visa which lets whole fleets and whole crews of ships come through under cursory almost immediate bounce back giving of a maritime crew visa. These are the dynamics and we have to understand what that means. In an environment of heightened security alert we are prepared to open our borders up for a few cheap political shots from this federal government. 
It’s not on, it’s going to be a high cost and I don’t want to be the one standing by and saying we’ve done nothing to support an Australian industry over a cheap and nasty replacement.


ALBANESE: Happy to take questions. 

REPORTER: Firstly, isn’t linking these three deaths to these economic reforms just cheap political opportunism?

ALBANESE: What we have here is a proposal in writing – Budget Paper No 2. Go and have a look at it, it is there. I was stunned on Budget night that it was there in black and white in the most political of Budget papers that has been seen in this country – a clear statement saying that Australian-based ships should better align their labour standards with international standards. Now it is appropriate under those circumstances to draw out exactly what those international standards are. I make that point completely. We need to go into this issue with eyes wide open. If the government's position is that there is no preference at all for Australian shipping, ahead of foreign-flagged vessels, then it’s appropriate that the Senate examine exactly what is occurring in terms of foreign-flagged vessels, what the circumstances are, that would seem to me to be a reasonable response. 
Anyone who has a look at the Four Corners program last night I think would be shocked. I await the Coronial Inquiry. I’ve made it very clear I don’t pre-empt that inquiry. It is appropriate it be allowed to run its course. But it’s also appropriate at a time when the government is saying Australian shipping should basically be run aground, which is what this policy would do – in favour of foreign ships, what we are seeing here is an Australian shipping industry that worked through a reform process with the Australian shipping industry, with the unions involved, with Treasury, with Finance, with the National Farmers Federation, with Rio Tinto, with all of these bodies, on a reform process to have a comprehensive system of reform to revitalise Australian shipping. The government seems to not think that that it’s important as well and is going on an ideological crusade, not just on shipping, but also on aviation.