The Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) has won an important victory as the Federal Court ruled on August 9 that seafarers who organised a two-month sit-in to protect their jobs had not broken the law.
Federal Court Justice Mordecai Bromberg ruled in favour of the MUA's defence that a clause in the vessel’s employment agreement that stated it was in place “whilst the vessel operates in the trade” meant it had ceased to apply at the time of the sit-in.
Ten seafarers undertook the sit-in to prevent the MV Portland from being replaced by foreign flag-of-convenience ships crewed by exploited workers.
The seafarers and the MUA had been in a five-and-a-half year battle with the Fair Work Ombudsman, which wanted the crew to be fined for undertaking industrial action by refusing to leave the vessel.
In November 2015, the crew found out that Alcoa was planning to sack 40 Australian seafarers and sell the MV Portland. For 27 years, the vessel had been carrying alumina from Kwinana in Western Australia to the Portland Aluminium Smelter in Victoria.
Ten seafarers refused to sail the vessel to Singapore, where it was to be sold. They occupied the vessel for two months, before they were forcibly removed by security guards in the dead of night and replaced by a foreign crew.
MUA assistant national secretary Ian Bray said Bromberg’s decision is a significant win for all seafarers.
“For 4-and-a-half years, the Fair Work Ombudsman has pursued legal action against the union and our members, refusing numerous attempts to mediate a resolution and instead taking it to trial in the Federal Court,” Bray said.
He said the ruling “confirms the long-argued position of the MUA” that the employment agreement ceased to operate once Alcoa announced the MV Portland was being replaced from service.
“This is a significant victory for the 10 brave Australian seafarers who spent two months on board this vessel, without pay, in an effort to defend one of the few remaining Australian-registered vessels trading on our coast.
“After almost five long years, this not only brings us a step closer to averting fines for our members, it could be a watershed industrial relations decision with significant implications for other workers.”
Bray said the Malcolm Turnbull, Tony Abbott and Scott Morrison governments should be held to account for their role in not only sending these jobs offshore, but prosecuting the Australian workers who tried to save them. He said successive federal governments “have been supporting the loss of these skilled jobs.
“They issued the temporary licences required to use foreign flag-of-convenience vessels to undertake this trade around the Australian coast. They granted the visas for the foreign crew who were flown in to replace these seafarers. And they then set their industrial relations attack dog on them.”
Bray said the only way multi-national companies, such as Alcoa, get away with cutting Australian seafarers’ jobs is because the federal government supports them issuing temporary licenses to use foreign vessels with exploited crews on coastal shipping routes.
“Five years on, Alcoa is continuing to use flag-of-convenience vessels crewed by seafarers that are paid as little as $2 per hour, all while enjoying multimillion dollar taxpayer-funded subsidies from the Victorian government.
“Despite happily taking millions from Australian taxpayers, this American multinational refuses to employ a single Australian seafarer on what is clearly a permanent domestic trading route.”