Unions slam mistreatment of Ruby Princess crew

The Ruby Princess. Photo: Alexxx Malev / CC BY-SA 2.0

Unions have slammed the government’s handling of the crew still on board the Ruby Princess cruise ship, now docked in Port Kembla in New South Wales.

The ship was a key source of COVID-19 infections Australia-wide. Governments are intent on punishing the ship’s crew rather than the authorities that allowed 2650 people to disembark in Circular Quay on March 19, without so much as a temperature check.

As of April 14, the NSW Health Department confirmed that 128 crew members on board had tested positive, as well as 11 others who had been evacuated to hospitals. Nearly 370 passengers contracted COVID-19, while more than 700 other cases have been linked back to the cruise ship.

NSW South Coast Labour Council secretary Arthur Rorris said it was “criminal negligence” that only some of the crew have been tested.

“More than 40% of the Ruby Princess crew tested yesterday [April 9] were positive for the COVID-19 virus. The [state Coalition] government is still refusing to test the remaining 1000.”

A criminal investigation has been launched into why passengers were allowed to disembark without undergoing testing, despite some reporting flu-like symptoms. At least 18 Ruby Princess passengers have died.

NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian announced on April 15 that she was appointing a special inquiry in addition to the police probe.

Unions have criticised the “covert operation” to move the cruise ship overnight from Sydney Harbour, where substantially more hospital facilities are available, to a grain terminal in Port Kembla.

International Transport Workers Federation (ITWF) national coordinator Dean Summers said the NSW government needs to implement “an emergency humanitarian response”.

“This is a problem of the NSW government’s own making. It could have only been a political decision to turn the ship away from Sydney and hide it in a grain terminal.”

It is not even clear which authority is responsible for providing medical care to the crew.

The NSW government claimed on April 12 that the private health company Aspen Medical had been engaged, but the company says it is only responsible for reporting to Australian Border Force, NSW Health and NSW Police. It is not providing any medical care.

Summers said Aspen’s announcement was a surprise, saying that the union had been told “Aspen have been brought onto the ship to provide medical care to the crew”. Now, he said, “we find out from NSW Health that they’re not responsible unless it’s something critical,” he told the April 14 Illawarra Mercury.

But the cruise ship’s medical team only includes two doctors, three nurses and a paramedic.

Summers questioned why the crew has to remain on board a “flag of convenience” vessel, which effectively has no home port, meaning it can avoid paying taxes.

Left as it is, Summers said the virus is likely to contaminate more of the crew. “This ship is a black ship. We’ve got to get people off it. Treat them exactly the same you would treat someone coming off an airplane. Get them tested and put in hotel rooms away from the source of contamination.”

A large proportion of the crew are from the Philippines, Indonesia, India and Sri Lanka, which may explain the discriminatory treatment from NSW health officials.

Philippines Australia Union Link spokesperson Peter Murphy said on soical media on April 14 that, if not for the combined efforts of the ITWF, the South Coast Labour Council and the Maritime Union of Australia, some of the sickest crew members would not have been tested over Easter.

At least another 100 crew are showing symptoms of respiratory illness, Murphy said. Meanwhile, police officers in full body protective suits are boarding the ship while the crew still have no protective gear. The Carnival Corporation must be made to fulfil its duty of care and NSW Health must “take direct control” and ensure that the workers are “treated like human beings”.

That means allowing the crew off the ship, and not letting it sail this week because that is “certain to lead to more coronavirus cases on board, serious illness and some deaths”.

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