COVID outbreak on iron ore carrier highlights threat to maritime supply chains

Published: 16 Apr 2021

A COVID outbreak on a bulk carrier off WA’s Pilbara coast has highlighted the need for urgent government action to address the ongoing threat the virus poses to Australia’s maritime supply chains.

The captain of the MV Aquagenie, which was chartered by Rio Tinto to carry iron ore to China, has become the second crew member to test positive for COVID. His confirmed case comes days after another seafarer from the vessel was flown to Royal Perth Hospital for treatment.

The Maritime Union of Australia said the Federal Government needed to take urgent steps to improve crew change arrangements, implement testing arrangements for all seafarers on international vessels, and ensure seafarers had priority access to COVID vaccines.

“As an island nation, Australia is reliant on shipping to transport our exports to the world and maintain supplies of essential goods,” MUA National Secretary Paddy Crumlin said.

“This COVID outbreak on a ship undertaking Australian trade highlights the need for the Federal Government to take immediate steps to secure the nation’s supply chains by addressing deficiencies in quarantine and crew change arrangements.

“Among these steps should be the provision of COVID vaccines to international seafarers, along with advocacy in global forums to prioritise vaccination for all seafarers around the world.

“Australia must also address the crew change crisis, which has left many seafarers onboard vessels for more than a year as borders shut.

“By implementing best-practice quarantine arrangements, Australia could facilitate the safe replacement of maritime crews, ensuring the seafarers joining the vessels that carry Australia’s goods are COVID-free.

“The Federal Government should also introduce mandatory COVID testing for all seafarers arriving on international vessels, ensuring positive cases are identified, proper medical care is provided, and the risk of transmission to Australian workers is reduced.

“The current system, where COVID hotspots like the Philippines are left to facilitate the overwhelming majority of crew changes, poses a significant threat to Australia’s economic security.”

Mr Crumlin said major exporters should be looking to utilise Australian seafarers to reduce the threat posed by COVID to their supply chains.

“In recent decades, big miners like Rio Tinto and BHP decided to cut costs by replacing Australian vessels with flag-of-convenience ships, registered in tax havens and crewed by exploited foreign seafarers who are often paid just $2 per hour,” he said.

“A simple step to secure their supply chains would be to once again crew their vessels with highly-skilled Australian seafarers, which would ensure they remained COVID free and commodity exports could reliably continue.

“The short-sighted decision to replace Australian iron boats and local seafarers with exploited foreign workers has been exposed by the COVID crisis, with those small savings on wages now threatening the movement of billions of dollars worth of commodities.”

Media contact: Tim Vollmer — 0404 273 313 —


Authorised by P Crumlin, Maritime Union of Australia, Sydney