Five crew members aboard Alcoa ship the MV Portland were woken at 1am on January 13 by up to 30 security guards, handed their passports and forcibly removed from the vessel. The guards then escorted aboard a replacement crew, believed to be foreign seafarers, who immediately began sailing the ship towards Singapore.
The ship had been docked in the south-west Victorian port of Portland for the past two months in a dispute between the Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) and Alcoa. The dispute was triggered when the American–based miner sacked the 40 Australian crew who then refused to sail it to Singapore where it is to be scrapped.
The crew members of the have lost legal actions in the Fair Work Commission and the Federal Court, where they argued the federal government's "temporary coastal licence", which allows Alcoa to replace the MV Portland with a foreign-flagged vessel and foreign crew, was invalid.
The MUA said the company is trying to circumvent Australia's cabotage laws and shift to foreign vessels, many of them Flags of Convenience (FOCs) using exploited workers paid as little as $2 an hour.
MUA National Secretary Paddy Crumlin said there were many unanswered questions about the legitimacy of Alcoa's heavy-handed approach in forcibly removing workers in the middle of the night.
“Questions need to be asked about the role of Alcoa and the Australian government in this,” he said. “How did the foreign crew gain permission to enter and then sail the vessel? Where are the crew from? What security checks do they have? What visa are they on?
"This is the worst example of guerrilla tactics to get rid of Australian workers since Patricks. Has Australia learnt nothing since the infamous waterfront dispute in 1998? When did it suddenly become ok to again send in security guards in the dead of night to forcibly remove a workforce?”
Alcoa has been allowed to sail a foreign vessel with a foreign crew after the Malcolm Turnbull government granted the company a temporary licence on the exclusively domestic route, which moves cargo between Western Australia and the smelter in Portland.
The MV Portland has plied that route for 27 years. Temporary licences are intended for foreign trading ships that call into more than one Australian port for a temporary period.
“Australia currently has cabotage laws which state that ships trading through domestic ports are to be Australian flagged and crewed,” Crumlin said.
“The Senate has blocked the Turnbull government's deregulation agenda with the government's own figures saying this would result in more than 1000 direct job losses.
“The Turnbull government should never have issued this temporary licence to Alcoa and they should cancel it immediately.
“Australians have a right to work jobs in their own country and to be treated with respect by an employer profiting off the minerals that belong to the Australian people."
ACTU assistant secretary Scott Connolly described the early morning raid as "an attack on Australian workers and their families that has no place in a modern Australian workplace.
"People being forcibly removed from their place of work in an orchestrated midnight action should send shivers down the spine of all Australian workers," he said.
Alcoa has admitted the replacement of the MV Portland and its Australian crew will save the company $6 million a year.
In a statement issued on January 13, managing director of Alcoa Australia Michael Parker said Alcoa took "decisive action today to end protracted illegal industrial action".
“The MUA has held our ship hostage for two months; disrupting the lives of other crew members, disrupting operations at the Port of Portland, and threatening the Portland community with the loss of cruise ship visits."
In fact, the MV Portland crew moved their ship last week and anchored in the bay, allowing a cruise ship to berth.
"This was very meticulously planned," Crumlin said. "You don't just get a foreign crew in five minutes — Alcoa would have had to have been planning this over weeks, while saying they were willing to talk to work out a solution.
“The Australian Maritime Safety Authority would have had to be complicit, too, to give clearance to this replacement crew before they sailed.”
"They've sacked an Australian crew just before Christmas and then used a cynical tactic of thuggery like this to get rid of them."