Australian Tankermen Lose Jobs to Foreign Replacements

August 3rd 2015

Thirty-six Australian mariners who went on strike in July over a plan to outsource their jobs are now unemployed. Their ship, the MT Alexander Spirit, is the fourth Australian-crewed fuel tanker to be offshored in the past year.

For a week, the Australian mariners had refused orders to sail the ship from Devonport, Tasmania, to Singapore, where they had been told they would be replaced. They were joined in protest at the port by several hundred union members and local residents.

The tense waterfront standoff took place in the context of the government of Australia’s push to do away with the nation’s cabotage laws. Such laws—the Jones Act in the United States is an example—require that coastwise domestic freight be handled by citizen mariners aboard ships that fly each country’s national flag. Besides Australia and the United States, Japan, China and Indonesia are among the nations that have cabotage laws.

After the Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) lost a legal challenge appealing the lay-offs aboard the MT Alexander Spirit, the crew had no choice but to set sail.

“It’s really disgraceful and underhanded the way they did it,” said Joanne Kerin, a member of the crew. “I was getting ready to refinance my house when I got home, now I’m going to have to sell it.” She said that the dockworkers in Devonport had told the crew they were being laid off. It was only later that members of the crew were contacted by management.

MUA State Secretary Jason Campbell said supporters turned out to bid farewell to the ship when it set sail for Singapore. “There’s 36 Australian seafarers that will no longer have a job in our industry,” he said. “That’s another 36 guys that will virtually join dole queues.”

In May, Australia’s conservative government announced it would dismantle the Revitalizing Australian Shipping Act, a law passed by the previous government to protect Australian ships and crews from cut-rate flag-of-convenience (FOC) operators.

“What we’re seeing now is a conscious government decision to replace Australian workers with foreign workers, with foreign wages,” Anthony Albanese, an opposition politician, told ABC radio.

A spokesperson for the MUA said foreign-crewed FOC ships in Australian waters use exploited foreign workers who are paid as little as $2 an hour, while their lax safety standards risk a repeat of a 2010 incident when a Chinese bulk carrier, Shen Neng 1, slammed into the Great Barrier Reef.

MUA national secretary Paddy Crumlin said the government’s proposed shipping law reforms mean “this scenario will be played out many times across the country.”

There is now only one Australian-crewed fuel tanker left in the country’s coastwise trades.