The crew of the emergency towage vessel Coral Knight initiated a community assembly at the wharves in Cairns on March 30 after they were sacked from their jobs on the ship. These Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) members were joined by dozens of unionists, environmental activists and other local community members.
The 10 sacked seafarers fear public and environmental safety has been put at risk for the sake of replacing them with a cheaper alternative.
The role of the ship, which is based in Cairns, is to conduct critical safety operations at sea. Offshore, crude oil tankers and other ships, often poorly maintained flag-of convenience vessels, sail around and through the Great Barrier Reef.
The Coral Knight crew has trained and worked specifically in front line emergency response tasks for more than three years. Having only recently found out they would lose their jobs, the seafarers took the ship south to Palm Island near Townsville last week to stand by to assist in the response to Cyclone Debbie.
The seafarers’ jobs were threatened when the government contract to staff the Coral Knight was given to Teekay (TK) Shipping “based purely on reducing costs and gouging extra profit”, MUA Queensland assistant branch secretary Paul Gallagher explained.
He said, “TK has filled positions in this vital service protecting the Great Barrier Reef by paying up to $15,000 less, 4% less superannuation and a big reduction in leave allowances.”
The crew did not get offers of work from TK. When they heard TK had gotten the contract, they applied to the company to continue their work, but TK failed to consider employing even one of the current, highly trained, crew.
Unlike other recent sackings from Australian-based ship crews, the new crew are qualified seafarers and MUA members. However, they are new to the Coral Knight. Yet TK expected them to take over the ship with no immediate plan for training and without even a handover from the old crew, which the union tried to negotiate.
TK had announced the pay and conditions that would apply, ignoring the existing agreement for the ship, yet said it would also negotiate an agreement.
Coral Knight crew member Mark Clifton told Green Left Weekly that TK’s employment of the new crew on lower pay and worse conditions was an attempt to “drive a wedge into the union”.
The crew and the MUA hope community support will increase the pressure on the Australian Maritime Safety Authority and the companies involved in the contracting process to support workers’ wages and conditions, the safety and security of the Reef and the people working and living alongside it, by maintaining the Coral Knight's workforce.