Advance Australia's seafarers?

May 15, 2002


SYDNEY — The Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) held a rally on May 6 outside the offices of Canada Steamship Lines in support of CSL Yarra seafarers.

The "Australian workers for Australian jobs" rally was greeted by the Sydney Trade Union Choir singing "Advance Australia Fair" while surrounded by Australian flags and naval ensigns.

Speakers criticised John Howard for claiming to protect Australian borders from "illegal immigrants" while not protecting the country's borders from Ukrainian seafarers.

NSW Labor Council secretary John Robertson even linked foreign seafarers and flag of convenience ships with terrorist activities.

Such arguments undermine international working-class solidarity and reinforce the false idea that somehow Australian workers and Australian bosses have something in common.

Retired merchant seafarer Alwyn Allport followed the logic of these arguments when he called on Prime Minister John Howard to "get back to supporting the Australian shipowner".

Support Australian shipowners? Waterside workers certainly would not support union-buster Chris Corrigan's Australian stevedoring company Patrick over British-owned P&O.

But this is precisely where calling for "Australian workers for Australian jobs" leads — into the arms of Australian bosses, who are just as profit hungry and anti-worker as their overseas varieties.

More importantly, the fact that the CSL Yarra is just one of 32 ships that were once a part of the government-owned Australian National Line fleet was not mentioned by speakers at the rally. ANL was privatised by the federal Labor government in 1995.

The MUA had supported the retention of ANL as a publicly owned asset. However, after a five-day strike in September 1994 against the liquidation of ANL, the ALP struck a deal with the MUA leadership to accept that ANL must become "internationally competitive".

The five-day strike warded off immediate threats to seafarers' wages, conditions and safety standards. But the price of this "win" was that the MUA leadership accepted responsibility for making ANL commercially viable. That could only mean one thing: winding back gains and conditions won through years of struggle.

Public ownership was sacrificed in order to maintain a "national" shipping line. The idea of "Australian workers for Australian jobs" was put ahead of the need to halt privatisation.

Once privatisation was accepted, it was only a matter of time before cabotage — the system in which only Australian seafarers can crew ships registered in Australia that carry cargo between Australian ports — came under attack.

The private shipping companies that bought ANL vessels reregistered them as flag of convenience ships at the first available opportunity. Today, all but a handful of the original 32 ANL vessels are now operating with Third World crews working for Third World wages.

The seafarers on the CSL Yarra deserve our unconditional support in their fight to keep their jobs. But demanding "Australian workers for Australian jobs" is of no use — it's what got them into trouble in the first place.

The strife the CSL Yarra crew face is due to the privatisation of ANL in 1995, not foreign workers.

Demanding "Australian workers for Australian jobs" will not solve the problems seafarers face. Campaigning for and winning the reconstitution of a publicly owned national shipping line will.

[Shane Bentley is a member of the Maritime Union of Australia.]

From Green Left Weekly, May 15, 2002.
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