The Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) and the Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) are openly questioning the political motivations of Australia’s Fair Work Ombudsman after the agency announced it was seeking $10,800 fines for nine seafarers, five of whom were woken up at 1am and marched off the ship they were occupying in Portland, Victoria, in January 2016.
The five crewmembers were on board the Alcoa-owned MV Portland. They were woken by up to 30 security guards and intimidated into leaving the vessel they had occupied during a 60-day labor dispute after being told by Alcoa that they were to sail the vessel to Singapore, where they would be sacked.
The seafarers were no longer required, because the government had issued Alcoa a Temporary License that enabled them to use a foreign-flagged and crewed vessel as a replacement.
According to documents leaked to the media before the workers were told, the Ombudsman is seeking:
• Penalties against nine crew members for A$10,800 ($8,100) each
• Penalties against the union of A$54,000 ($40,500)
• Compensation of A$500,000 ($375,000) to be paid by the MUA to Alcoa
ACTU President Ged Kearney said: “It is a national disgrace that a Turnbull Government agency is trying to prosecute workers for standing up for their jobs. This legal action is designed to harm Australian workers in favor of tax avoidance, workplace bullying and harassment and exploitative use of guest labor in our country.
"There should be an inquiry into the political use of the Fair Work Ombudsman by the Turnbull Government because there appears to be a conspiracy against these workers."
MUA National Secretary and International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) President Paddy Crumlin said: "Alcoa's actions have been condemned by the MUA, ITF and seafarer unions around the world as an abusive attack on Australian seafarers' legal and national rights to work.
"Instead of cuddling up to this outrageous corporate behavior by Alcoa the Fair Work Ombudsman is prosecuting hardworking Australian citizens who have always paid their taxes and taken no industrial action in this long-standing national shipping route over the last 27 years.
"The MUA will always defend any member who is dragged from their bunk at 1am while at work by dozens of security guards, given five minutes to pack their bags, and then unceremoniously dumped on the wharf.
“These hardworking Australian seafarers have been replaced by flag-of-convenience shipping which pays exploited foreign workers as little as $2 an hour. One of the replacement vessels for the MV Portland even got busted paying bribes in Nigeria and Argentina. What is going on here?"
MUA Assistant National Secretary Ian Bray said: “It is of little surprise that a heavily politicized agency like the Fair Work Ombudsman tells the media before the union. The MUA admits to no wrongdoing and will vigorously defend these charges.
"Australians should have the right to work in their own country and not be treated like dirt by unscrupulous employers and a Federal Government that backed them every single step of the way.
“The MUA also notes that the same employer has since received $230 million in subsidies to continue the Portland smelter yet still runs flag-of-convenience ships with exploited foreign crews on the run that had been serviced by the MV Portland for 27 years prior.
“All of the seafarers from the MV Portland remain unemployed and it beggars belief that a Government agency seek to punish them to the tune of $10,800 each when that agency should instead have found ways for them to keep their jobs."
More information on the issues is available here.
The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.