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Issue #1717      February 3, 2016

Shipping Australia Ltd: Anything but Australian

Shipping Australia Limited is nothing at all like what its name suggests. As the peak industry body of ship-owners and shipping agents in Australia its members are the large international shipping firms who own the more than 3,000 ships that call into Australian ports every year.

Maritime Union Australia picket in the national headquarters lobby of Shipping Australia Limited.

The ships these firms operate are conveniently registered in tax havens such Cayman Islands and small, poor nations such as Burma, Liberia, the Marshall Islands, Bolivia and Equatorial Guinea, countries chosen for the very reason that they cannot exercise responsibility for the ships registered under their flags.

The crews these companies hire often work in conditions that amount to little more than slavery. Australian seafarers earn about $80,000 a year. Their awards and conditions, on Australian flagged ships and domestic shipping routes at least, are protected under the Coastal Trading Act.

Crews working on international routes have a minimum wage of less than $10,000 a year, set by the International Labour Organisation, and not enforceable. Very few crew are unionised and the reality is many seafarers sailing under flags of convenience work for as little as $2 an hour.

This is the regime the shipowners and their agents in Shipping Australia Limited want introduced onto Australia’s domestic shipping routes.

This is why the Maritime Union of Australia, with the support of the Australian Council of Trade Unions and state trade union councils, has recently been actively engaged in pickets and rallies, with the promise of more to come.

This action has included a picket this last week of Shipping Australia’s national headquarters in Sussex Street Sydney, as well as rallies in Melbourne against the sacking of the crew of MV Portland, that has traditionally carried the ore of US based corporation Alcoa to its smelter at Portland, in western Victoria and in Newcastle where the crew of the CSL Melbourne, that carries ore for Rio Tinto subsidiary Pacific Aluminium, is also being forcibly replaced.

Shipping Australia has been pushing for the Australian government to “overhaul” the Coastal Trade Act, which protects what remains of Australia’s coastal shipping industry. The industry body’s main argument is that its slow decline will continue and the jobs (under Australian award conditions) will be lost anyway, but the current Act stands in the way of “cheaper, more flexible” transport options coming in immediately.

The Abbott and Turnbull Liberal governments have been supportive of the shipowners’ demands, but the amended Act has been blocked in the Senate since the end of 2015.

The Turnbull government’s response to this has been to issue, first Alcoa, now Rio Tinto, “temporary licences” which allows these companies to bypass the law and introduce the “cheaper, more flexible” option of desperate, non-unionised labour drawn from some of the world’s poorest countries.

The MUA is warning that this exercise by global corporations in the shipping industry, to drive workers’ wages and conditions towards the bottom of the global labour market, is just the tip of the iceberg and if not opposed will permeate into other industries.

The Turnbull government’s moves to deregulate Australian shipping raise serious concerns on national security, fuel security, jobs and skills and environmental protection.

Australian crews are among the most highly trained in the world and have high level security screening. As a result, Australian-flagged ships are demonstrably safer than Flag of Convenience shipping and have a strong environmental record in protecting our coastline, as well as delivering a decent life to Australian crews and their families.

Next article – Sport – Has integrity got a sporting chance?

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