The International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) has urged multi-billion dollar American corporation Alcoa to reassess its decision to sack Australian seafarers engaged in coastal trade.
The ITF – which represents 4.7 million transport workers worldwide – has expressed its concern alleging that Alcoa was trying to exploit local laws and circumvent workers’ rights, and that the company was attempting to whittle down wages to boost already healthy profits.
Forty seafarers on board the Portland, which trades exclusively between the states of Western Australia and Victoria in Australia, were told that the ship would be scrapped and they would be sacked. However, the company still intends to maintain the route with a foreign ship crewed with overseas workers.
Alcoa announced that it will sell the ship and replace it with a foreign-flagged vessel to save about A$6 million ($4 million) a year. “Currently it is cheaper to ship alumina from Western Australia to the Middle East or China than it is to ship it to Victoria,” a communique from the company said, reports The Age.
ITF maritime coordinator Jacqueline Smith said the move was a direct attack on the principle of cabotage protection and an unacceptable case of social dumping.
“The principle of cabotage is important for a number of reasons, including: retaining and nurturing maritime skills, national security, sovereignty and the right to work in one’s own country,” she said.
ITF president and MUA (Maritime Union of Australia) national secretary Paddy Crumlin said Alcoa’s product had been moved around the Australian coast for more than 50 years on Australian ships with Australian crews.
“Alcoa has profited off the back of Australian workers for many decades and is now using a loophole in Australia’s Coastal Trading Act to undermine cabotage,” he said.
“It’s a contemptible act by the company that the loyal, hard-working seafarers are being scrapped in order to save a couple of bucks.”
As part of the Shipping Legislation Amendment Bill, the Australian government hopes to open its coastline to more foreign-crewed and foreign flagged vessels. This relaxing of Australia’s cabotage laws is expected to boost to the nation’s economy.
However, according to a report by the Australia Institute (AI), the number of Australian seafarers could drop from about 1,177 to less than 100 if the new laws were approved. The proposed amendments would allow foreign-flagged ships and crews to be paid international wages on domestic shipping routes for up to half a year.
Additionally, the proposed legislation allows ships to anchor nearly anywhere along the coastline. Locations in which vessels would be permitted to dock include estuaries, navigable rivers, creeks, channels, docks and piers.
The Australian Labor party’s Shadow Minister for Infrastructure Anthony Albanese stood up in Parliament last week condemning the government for their part on allowing the Portland be replaced.
“I rise to express my concern for the workers who currently crew MV Portland, a ship operating around the Australian coast, between Victoria and Western Australia for Alcoa,” he said.
“Alcoa have advised that they will sell this vessel and replace it with a foreign ship employing foreign workers. This will result in a loss of 40 direct jobs and is completely consistent with what the legislation that is now before the Senate says would happen.”
Its explanatory memorandum states:
Many of the operators currently operating under the Australian General Register would likely re-flag their vessels in order to compete with the foreign operators who enjoy the benefit of comparatively lower wage rates. Australian seafarers’ jobs would be adversely affected as Australian operators re-flag from the Australian General Register. Ship operators are likely to replace Australian seafarers (paid under EA rates) with foreign seafarers (paid under ITF rates).
The modelling also showed that there was no inclusion of costs and the potential loss of Australian seafarers’ jobs in the legislation.
“We said this would happen as a result of the government's legislation,” said Albanese. “In advance of that legislation being carried, a temporary permit has been granted by the department against the existing legislation. This is an outrageous decision.”
Tanker Crews Already Losing Out
In May this year, the crew of the Australian tanker British Loyalty lost their jobs after BP removed one of the last local ships from coastal transportation. Maritime workers protested the decision and condemned the use of the “unsafe” foreign-flagged ships increasingly operating in Australian waters.
British Loyalty is the third Australian tanker to stop operating in the last 18 months, leaving just two local tankers being used for coastal transport. The MUA alleges the work was going to international boats that have not passed Australian safety standards, crewed by foreign sailors who are also “grossly underpaid.”