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ITF Blames Near-Grounding on Foreign Flag System

By MarEx 2016-05-17 20:03:02

International Transport Workers Federation (ITF) national coordinator Dean Summers has questioned what he calls the flag-of-convenience system, after a container ship narrowly missed running aground when it veered off course and almost collided with rocks and reefs off the coast of Coffs Harbour, Australia.

Summers said that last month’s near miss was the latest in a string of incidents involving flag of convenience shipping.

“On April 14, a 53,000 ton container ship almost ran aground off Coffs Harbour," Summers said. "The Greek-owned, Liberian-registered ship, crewed with Ukrainian and Russian seafarers came very close to hitting the coast after being 24 kilometers (15 miles) off course on her way up the Australian coast.

“This is the standard of foreign shipping that's encouraged to come onto the Australian coast and replace our domestic fleet,” he said. “The net result for Australia is a near miss with the potential for hundreds of millions of dollars damage.”

Working Conditions

Earlier this year, the ITF released evidence of safety breaches on board what it calls a flag-of-convenience ship berthed in Newcastle, Australia.

The Greek owners of the Panamanian flagged Christine B had been underpaying its 19 Filipino crew, the ITF says, and also putting their lives at risk by making them clean the cargo hold without proper safety harnesses or equipment.

The ITF released photos of the crew standing unsecured on planks of wood tied haphazardly on by ropes to the inside of the hold, many meters up in the air. 

Summers says this highly dangerous job was done while at sea – putting the crew’s lives in further jeopardy.

The ITF secured $30,000 backpay for the crew who had been on board the Christine B for 14 months.

Medical Care

In January, the ITF formally called for a coronial inquest into the death of a 26-year-old Filipino seafarer on board a Panamanian registered coal carrier.

Christian Borbon died on December 19, 2015, on board the Japanese owned, Panamanian registered Beaufix, while on route from China to Gladstone to load Australian coal.

The seafarer was diagnosed with tonsillitis in China but died a number of days after leaving Shanghai on December 13, 2015, said Summers. 

Nine of the surviving crew complained of similar symptoms, but we are told they would need to pay $500 each to see a doctor in the port of Gladstone. “These seafarers are paid so little they do not have $500 to pay for a medical out of their own money which by law must be provided free by the shipping company,” said Summers.

Death Ship

Australia is currently undertaking a coronial inquest into the three fatalities that occurred on board the Sage Sagittarius, or "Death Ship" between August and October 2012. 

“As the body count increases from flag of convenience shipping, our federal government continues to dismantle the Australian industry, replacing it with this de-registered, disgraceful form of shipping,” said Summers.

Industry at Risk

Australian seafarers are warning that the local industry is at risk unless the influx of foreign workers is halted. Hundreds of overseas contractors are currently working on the Australian coast despite close to 1,000 local maritime workers looking for jobs, about one sixth of the entire workforce.

The lack of jobs has been blamed on falling commodity prices and a decline in manufacturing, but unions have said that is only half the story.

“[Jobs] aren't drying up because there's no work, but drying up because the Government is allowing $2 an hour exploited labor to replace them on the coast,” said Thomas Mayor, secretary of the Northern Territory branch of the Maritime Union of Australia.

Under the national shipping regime, foreign vessels can obtain temporary licenses to operate in Australian waters without needing to pay their workers Australian wages. The licenses are meant to apply for two trips only, but industry insiders say companies are easily able to obtain “rolling” licenses.

“Seafaring jobs are just the same as carrying cargo on a truck from Darwin to Adelaide — on a truck you expect Australian wages, Australian safety conditions, Australian work conditions,” Mayor said.

Alcoa Dispute

A dispute is ongoing over a temporary license the Australian government granted to Alcoa allowing it to use foreign-flagged vessels.

“Companies like Alcoa are now replacing safe, secure, environmentally responsible domestic shipping with the cheapest, nastiest flag of convenience on offer,” says Summers.

“Since that license was granted, the senate voted to retain the current coastal shipping laws, and the government should act in line with the intent of that legislation by cancelling Alcoa’s temporary license.”

In January, five crewmembers protesting on board Alcoa ship MV Portland were woken at 1am by up to 30 security guards, handed their passports and forcibly removed from the vessel.

The MV Portland, which carried alumina between Western Australia and the smelter in Portland, Victoria, has since sailed to southeast Asia to be scrapped, however the route between Western Australia and Victoria is still in operation. Alcoa has now chartered foreign vessels with a foreign crew.

Alcoa’s focus is on reducing operating costs and improving productivity to help all its facilities remain internationally competitive, both now and into the future, said the company in a statement at the time.