Victoria: COVID testing of wharfies misses the boat on risk control

Published: 3 Mar 2021

Union leaders Robert Lumsden, David Ball and ITF Assistant Coordinator Matt Purcell at Melbourne docks on Wednesday.CREDIT: Photo CREDIT JASON SOUTH, THE AGE

The Victorian Government’s introduction of mandatory COVID testing for maritime port of entry workers — but not for the seafarers onboard vessels arriving from international ports — could lead to a repeat of the hotel quarantine disaster, according to the Maritime Union of Australia.

Victoria is the first state or territory to implement the policy, with the Department of Health and Human Services issuing a directive that wharfies and other workers at ports of entry be tested every seven days.

The MUA and container terminal operators have made representations to the Victorian Government warning of flaws in the approach and highlighting the negative impacts on the industry.

MUA Victoria Deputy Branch Secretary David Ball said the Victorian Government had correctly identified the significant COVID transmission risk posed by maritime arrivals, but was testing the wrong people.

“Testing waterfront workers 7 days after boarding a vessel, rather than the international seafarers arriving from foreign ports, is like breathalysing the barman instead of the drink driver,” Mr Ball said.

“Once Australian maritime workers have been infected with COVID, it is already too late, with those workers potentially spreading this virus to family, friends, coworkers, and the broader community.

“The union is not opposed to testing on the waterfront for frontline workers who might be exposed to a known infection, but what is needed is nationally-consistent, robust screening of all international seafarers arriving in Australian ports, ensuring positive COVID cases are identified before Australian workers are exposed.

“If testing all international airline arrivals is possible, then there is no reason the same model can’t be implemented for the international shipping industry.

“By testing international seafarers on arrival, appropriate medical treatment can also be made available while the vessel is in port, protecting the health, welfare and safety of all these workers who play a vital role in Australia’s maritime supply chains.

“Along with employers, we’ve also highlighted significant flaws in the implementation of this directive, including a lack of clarity about where workers can get tested, out of pocket expenses in some cases, and the impact on port productivity as hundreds of workers go off to be tested.”

MUA Assistant National Secretary Adrian Evans said the Victorian Government directive confirmed the union’s repeated warnings that vessels arriving from overseas ports pose a significant infection risk to the Australian community.

“The fundamental principle of risk management is to apply controls at the source,” he said.

“Australian wharfies and port workers are not the source of COVID infections.

“Our members have been on the front line since the first outbreak, putting strong infection controls in place to guarantee the continuous supply of goods through our ports to the Australian community.

“As a result, there has not been a single case of vessel to shore virus transmission in any Australian port due to the robust COVID protocols implemented across the industry.

“The current biosecurity system is fundamentally flawed, with a reliance on a ship’s captain, under incredible commercial pressure, in an industry infiltrated by criminality and exploitation, to declare that no one on the vessel is sick.

“The result has been ships frequently granted entry to Australian ports with seafarers onboard who are infected with COVID, leaving it to Australian maritime workers to implement the controls to protect themselves and the community when they are required to go onboard to load and discharge cargo.

“If the Victorian Government is serious about addressing the risk of COVID transmission from foreign ships crews they need to ensure all crew are tested and cleared, rather than having Australian workers exposed then tested after COVID has already passed into the community.

“They should also work with the Federal Government to ensure international seafarers have priority access to COVID vaccines, given their essential role in Australia’s maritime supply chains.”


Story in The Age 4 March 2021



Authorised by P Crumlin, Maritime Union of Australia, Sydney