THE alumina ship detained in Newcastle by a federal government agency for non-payment of wages and other breaches was "the tip of an iceberg", the International Transport Workers Federation (ITF) said yesterday.
The federation's Australian co-ordinator, Dean Summers, said between 300,000 and 400,000 seamen were trapped at sea on more than 15,000 vessels, unable to get off because of COVID-19 restrictions in every port.
The Unison Jasper, bringing alumina from Queensland to Newcastle for smelting at Tomago Aluminium, was moved yesterday afternoon to the Mayfield 4 berth to make way for the Poavasa Ace to tie up and unload today at the Kooragang Island alumina berth.
The bulk of the Unison Jasper crew, from Myanmar (formerly Burma), were taken to Sydney late on Friday under police escort for a fortnight's coronavirus isolation, and the ITF is demanding that Tomago Aluminium ensure that none of the other vessels bringing its alumina to Newcastle are operating under similar conditions.
Tomago Aluminium chief executive Matt Howell has said repeatedly since Friday that the problems on the Unision Jasper - which he acknowledged - are a matter for the smelter's shareholders, Rio Tinto, CSR and Hydro.
Mr Summers said Tomago could blame who it liked, but conditions on the ship were clearly at odds with Tomago Aluminium's published code of conduct, which had a section supporting human rights and which "applies to all employees, contractors, consultants and suppliers" of the company.
Mr Summers said it was Canberra's "temporary permit" system allowing foreign ships into the coastal trade that created the problem in the first place.
A spokesperson for Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack said the Coastal Trading Act did not cover underpayment, and actions by the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) showed the system worked properly.
Mr Summers said cabotage - or the law that protected each country's domestic shipping - was still in place in Australia, but the government "gets around it by issuing 'temporary permits' like confetti".
He said the underpayment of crews and other breaches of labour conventions were a regular problem at sea but the situation had been exacerbated by coronavirus, with no country willing to stand up and acknowledge the problem.
"These guys have been at sea for more than 14 months when the international convention is 11 months maximum, and that will be without even getting off the ship when it ties up in whatever port it's in," Mr Summers said.
"They don't want them getting off in Australia at the moment because they're worried they'll become asylum seekers."
Mr Summers said the Unison Jasper was owned in Taiwan, its "flag" or home port was in Hong Kong, its officers were Chinese and its crew, at the bottom of the heap, were Burmese from Myanmar, who had been "bullied and intimidated" by the ship's officers against speaking out.
"When it was detained last month in Brisbane we found they were owed $92,000 in wages, which were paid," Mr Summers said.
"We then obtained further paperwork to show another $60,000 was owed, which the ITF alerted AMSA to.
"It didn't happen this time, but all too often we will repatriate unpaid wages for seamen and then they will be bullied into paying it back to the ship's connections again once it leaves Australian waters."
Mr Summers said he did not know how the Unison Jasper's owners got enough crew to move the vessel across the port to the Mayfield berth but he assumed they had applied to their flag port, Hong Kong, and received permission to move the ship with an undersized crew.
He believed that although the vessel had been moved off the alumina berth, it would not be allowed to leave the port until the Australian authorities were satisfied.
It is in the interests of Australia for governments to help ships change crewsShipping Australia, Friday
NSW Port Authority's schedule of Newcastle shipping movements shows the Unison Jasper leaving the Mayfield berth today for Port Kembla, but an AMSA spokesperson said yesterday afternoon that the vessel was still detained.
The spokesperson said AMSA had "detained" the vessel over "potential serious deficiencies under the Maritime Labour Convention including repatriation of seafarers".
"AMSA is investigating these concerns and will provide more information in due course," the spokesperson said. "In the interim, the ship remains under detention."
Mr McCormack's spokesperson said AMSA's actions showed "Australia's system of ensuring compliance with the Maritime Labour Convention 2006 is working".
"AMSA continues to investigate complaints relating to seafarer welfare and repatriation and to respond appropriately where deficiencies are identified, including the detention of vessels," Mr McCormack's spokesperson said.
"Underpayments and other issues raised by the Maritime Union of Australia are not regulated under the Coastal Trading Act.
"Temporary licences issued under the Act are held by organisations, they are not issued to a vessel.
"The Australian Government is working hard with the states and territories and industry to facilitate crew changes to keep shipping operating and our imports and exports moving.
"At the same time, AMSA's enforcement of matters such as compliance with the Maritime Labour Convention 2006 and port and flag state control inspections, as well as its practical approach to crew changes and time at sea, will continue to uphold Australia's international obligations on seafarer pays and conditions."
The shipping industry peak body, Shipping Australia, is also concerned about the amount of time seafarer's are "trapped" at sea because of COVID-19.
On Friday, Shipping Australia said there were "solid reasons" to allow crew changes to take place here, rather than "overseas" as the Western Australian government had demanded.
Apart from the human rights issue of "helping to alleviate human suffering" of "people trapped at sea", there were safety concerns that fatigue would cause accidents including collisions.
Seafarers could also legally refuse to work, resulting in berths being blocked.
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