Last Australian-crewed ship cancelled

The British Fidelity in Kwinana, Western Australia.
March 31, 2016

British Fidelity, the last Australian-crewed oil tanker serving the Australian coast, has been removed from service by petroleum giant BP. British Fidelity had transported petroleum from Kwinana in South Australia to Devenport and Hobart in Tasmania.

The crew received a letter from the ship manager, ASP, stating that BP had terminated the contract for the British Fidelity. This came after the crew had raised objections to sailing to Singapore.

BP, the company responsible for the Deepwater Horizon disaster, has come under criticism for another planned high risk deep-water drilling project in the Great Australian Bite.

The British Fidelityis the third ship to be replaced by a foreign-crewed flag of convenience vessel this year. The Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) crew of the two other vessels, the CSL Melbourne and MV Portland, were forcibly removed by Australian Federal Police and security guards for refusing to sail their vessels overseas to be replaced.

Since the crew was removed, the CSL Melbourne has been replaced by the Liberian-flagged Greek-owned vessel Skyfall, which continues to carry aluminium from Gladstone to Newcastle on a temporary voyage permit granted by the Turnbull Coalition government.

Before removing the crew the company had taken away fresh food and put locks on the fridges and posted security guards at the bottom of the gangway to intimidate the striking workers. The crew of the MV Portland were removed in the middle of the night and given 15 minutes to take their belonging or be arrested.

The International Transport Workers Federation (ITF) has revealed that the Filipino workers who are to crew the Skyfall are not on a union agreement and the ship's master has been instructed by the company to refuse all attempts at cooperating with the ITF. The ITF covers international seafarers on flag of convenience vessels.

By using vessels registered with countries that keep open ship registries with low registry fees and lax standards — known as flags of convenience — Australian businesses hope to increase their profits by applying the health and safety and environmental standards of Third World countries in Australian waters. This has led to a decline in safety and environmental standards as well as job cuts for Australian seafarers who can no longer work out of their own coast.

There have been multiple well-documented cases of underpayment of wages, human rights abuses and environmental abuses committed on flag of convenience vessels.

In 2012, two Filipino crew of the Panamanian registered Sage Sagittarius, one of the world's largest bulk coal carriers, died in suspicious circumstances in Australian waters. The former master of the Sagittarius, despite admitting to have formerly been a gun runner and facing a subpoena for the inquest into the two deaths, has been granted a maritime visa to work on Australian waters.

In 1995, disgracefully poor maintenance by the shipping company and negligence by the Australian Maritime Safety Authority led to the bow of the BP-chartered tanker Kirki detaching from the vessel in rough weather, spilling thousands of tonnes of crude oil off the coast of Western Australia.

Lack of accountability and a lowly-paid, exploited workforce, who are afraid to raise concerns for fear of losing their jobs, mean that flag of convenience vessels are a law unto themselves.

Minister for Employment Michaelia Cash was asked on the ABC's Q&A program on March 7why the government was replacing Australian workers with crews who earned as little as $4 a day. She replied: “I think we need to ensure we are internationally competitive, because if we are not you will see far more jobs lost in Australia.”

A Senate Estimates hearing recently revealed that the government knew in advance that the crew of the MV Portland were to be removed by security guards.

Australian seafarers should not have to give up vital safety and pay conditions to work on their own coast. In no other industry do employers decide which country's laws they should base their standards on, but for Australian domestic sea trade this is a regular occurrence.

[Liam Cohrs is a member of the Maritime Union of Australia.]

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