The International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) says the Australian government can no longer ignore its national security responsibilities, in response to recent findings by that nation’s senate inquiry into flag-of-convenience (FOC) shipping.
The Australian Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport References Committee report, publicized in mid-July, found gaping holes in Australia’s national security framework, just one day after a government announcement about creating a new Ministry of Home Affairs.
“FOC shipping refers to international trading vessels that are registered in tax havens such as Liberia, Panama and the Marshall Islands,” the ITF explained. “These registries are renowned for their lax labor laws, poor investment controls and lack of ownership oversight.”
The ITF has continually condemned the Australian government’s moves to deregulate its shipping industry by the removal of cabotage, as part of the federation’s campaign against runaway flags. The ITF’s FOC campaign was formally launched in 1948, and has become the standard-bearer for the defense of exploited and mistreated seafarers throughout the world.
Goals of the ITF’s FOC campaign include the elimination of the FOC system worldwide, and the establishment of a regulatory framework for the shipping industry in order to create and enforce ITF-acceptable standards aboard all vessels. Without that framework, unscrupulous shipowners are able to operate runaway-flag vessels that abuse seafarers’ rights undetected and without legal ramifications.
Meanwhile, a recent Australian Border Force (ABF) submission states, “The Department notes that while a significant proportion of legitimate sea trade is conducted by ships with FOC registration, there are features of FOC registration, regulation and practice that organized crime syndicates or terrorist groups may seek to exploit. These features are: A lack of transparency of the identity of shipowners and consequent impediment to holding the owner to account for a ship’s actions; and insufficient flag state regulatory enforcement and adherence to standards.”
The Australian Senate report states: “The committee maintains that [FOC] vessels present serious security risks to the Australian coast, which need to be properly addressed. The committee takes the view that, by not agreeing to review the current state of the maritime sector in Australia, the government is failing to address the serious security, economic, human rights and environmental vulnerabilities in the sector.”
The committee called on the federal government to grow the Australian maritime industry in the face of what it calls “very real and current risks to our nation” posed by FOC vessels and their crew.
ITF President Paddy Crumlin, who also heads up the Maritime Union of Australia, attacked the conservative Australian government for intentionally encouraging what he described as the morally ambiguous – at times, criminal – underbelly of FOC shipping.
“The Turnbull government has allowed Australian seafarers to be replaced by FOC lawlessness that now threatens our very national security,” Crumlin said.
He continued, “Under their legislative abuses, Australian seafarers, properly trained, security-screened and resident taxpayers have been sacked and their jobs in a domestic transport sector given away to whoever comes over the horizon without a word of inquiry about their background. The solution is simple: stop destroying and start supporting and growing our domestic shipping industry and the Australian working men and women that work there and in doing so we will help keep our borders safe.”
ITF National Coordinator Dean Summers said the inquiry had officially laid bare the murky world of FOC shipping that the Turnbull government has so far chosen to ignore.
“The Senate inquiry heard multiple accounts of the very worst of what FOC shipping has to offer – murders, gun-running, intimidation, bullying, harassment and slave labor,” Summers said.
He added, “The appalling case of multiple murders at sea onboard the Sage Sagittarius was the basis for this inquiry and serves as a shocking reminder of what can happen when an entire industry is little more than a race to the bottom.”
The ITF applauded the committee’s call for a comprehensive, whole-of-government review into the potential economic, security and environmental risks presented by FOC shipping. The committee said it was very concerned by FOC vessels carrying dangerous goods around Australia’s coast, including ammonium nitrate and petroleum products. During the last fiscal year, only 1,072 of the 15,715 commercial vessels arriving in Australia were searched by the ABF.
“The committee is very disturbed by the many examples of job losses, poor working conditions, inadequate wages and deaths and disappearances at sea,” stated the ABF. “To have seafarers disappearing and dying in and around Australian waters, and while in transit to Australian ports is unacceptable.”
The committee’s recommendations include having the Fair Work Ombudsman (FWO) implement an inspection program for ships with foreign seafarers to verify that paid wages meet Australian legal requirements. It also urges the federal government to fund the FWO wages-inspection program.
Moreover, the committee called on the federal government to implement clear procedures on how to respond to deaths that occur on ships travelling in or to Australian waters; and to consider legislative amendments to provide clarity on jurisdictional responsibility for investigating fatalities on vessels sailing in Australian waters.
Other recommendations include the re-establishment of an advisory body made up of key maritime industry stakeholders to advise the government on new Australian shipping policies and workforce development and training opportunities. The committee also suggested the federal government review the Australian maritime industry with intent to grow and support it, as well as review the potential economic, security and environmental risks presented by FOC vessels and foreign crew.