Australia crew strike claims refuted, crew change crisis continues

Aerial View Fremantle Port where the Ben Rennis was detained. Credit: Fremantle Ports

Despite reports that crew downed tools on three vessels in Australia, it was the country’s port state control officials that detained the vessels and stopped operations, sources have confirmed to SAS.

Reports from the ITF and Bloomberg stated that the three vessels stopped operations due to crew  “strike action”, however, Dean Summers Australian national coordinator, ITF, told SAS that the vessels were detained by Port State Control (PSC), following tip offs to the ITF and the Australia Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) regarding Maritime Labour Convention (MLC) violations and abuse.

“It would not be accurate to call these [situations on the vessels] strike action, no. Both the Unison Jasper and the Ben Rinnes have been detained under MLC, however for different reasons,” an AMSA spokesperson told SAS.

Australia detained the two vessels in infringement of the Maritime Labour Convention (MLC), sending a clear signal to shipping companies that crew changes must be carried out. The third vessel, Conti Stockholm, was inspected as usual and briefly stopped while crew contracts were investigated.

The Hong Kong flagged bulk carrier Unison Jasper was detained on 31 July in Newcastle, New South Wales. The 11 Burmese ratings were disembarked from the vessel following alleged coercion of signing contract extensions, according to the ITF. The AMSA spokesperson told SAS the vessel detention also related to failures to ensure seafarers’ employment and social rights under Article IV of the MLC, including payment of wages, crew repatriation, and provision of fresh food. The vessel will only be released from Newcastle once the minimum safe manning standards are met and approved by AMSA and the ship’s flag state. In this case, Summers said he feared, that the crew may be abandoned in Australia, as the ship owners appear to be doing little to rectify the situation in both repaying overdue wages and organising repatriation, and the ship managers have placed the responsibility solely on the owners.

“It is correct that the Unison Jasper is on time-charter to Lauritzen Bulkers. From a commercial point of view, the vessel has been sublet to a third party. Technical management, including crewing, remains with the owners of vessel,” said Niels Josefsen, CEO, Lauritzen Bulkers. “We are aware of the difficult situation that has arisen with the vessel and its crew, and we have informed the owner that this situation will have consequences for any future cooperation”.

SAS has contacted the ship owner, Unison Marine Corp, for comment. The 11 ratings are currently undergoing quarantine in Sydney and are awaiting repatriation.

Meanwhile, the bulk carrier Ben Rinnes was detained on 7 August in Geelong, Victoria, when PSC inspectors found it did not have a valid repatriation plan for several seafarers who had been onboard in excess of 13 months. “We will not except any extensions beyond 14 months without the agreement of the seafarer, vessel operator and flag state. The owners of the Ben Rinnes continue to work on repatriation arrangements and the vessel will be released from detention once this process is adequately addressed,” said an AMSA representative.

The remaining vessel, container ship Conti Stockholm, was not detained in Fremantle, Australia, on 6 August, as initially put forward by the ITF, neither did the crew refuse to work. Instead, the vessel was boarded and inspected by AMSA in port. “It is not true that the crew stopped working,” said Dominique Kreuzkam, head of information and communication unit, NSB Niederelbe, the vessel managers. Kreuzkam explained to SAS that the contracts of three ratings were the point of discussion as they expired right when the vessel called at Fremantle. Seven on-signers were also ready to board the vessel, however, were stopped by governmental regulations. “They [crewing department] are permanently working on a solution for our crew and for meeting administrative decisions in Fremantle. The crew change is scheduled for Port of Brisbane”.

The Conti Stockholm has since left Australian waters, AMSA confirmed.

However, when it comes to “bad ship owners” taking responsibility, this enforcement of MLC infringements and Australia’s own fractured state system, could in some cases exacerbate the issue and lead to further crew abandonment. Summers fears this may well be the result of the Unison Jasper, as the ship managers are placing the responsibility of repatriation on the vessel owners who appear to not be cooperating with AMSA or the ITF on this issue.

The detentions carried out by AMSA for MLC violations on crew contract length appear to signal Australia is emerging as a leader in enforcing crew changes, however AMSA is restricted by the country’s different state jurisdictions.

“There is a particularly difficult issue in Australia where you have AMSA administering the MLC but the states having authority over travel restrictions and who are denying the ability to crew change,” said Stuart Neil, communications director, International Chamber of Shipping (ICS) to SAS.

Victoria, for example, has suspended all international flights, while other states will not allow anyone coming from Victoria in aside from essential workers, and seafarers do not fall into this category. “A seafarer getting off their ship and leaving would not be considered essential (it’s the working bit not the going home again bit that they look at), so they cannot fly directly out of Victoria and they cannot move to another State to leave via another city,” explained Neil. As such, crews could find themselves stuck in certain states in Australia, and, without the support from willing ship owners/operators/managers, could well be abandoned there. “If seafarers get off in Victoria they may well be stuck there as Victoria has suspended all international flights and there is no telling when that will start again,” said Neil.

“There is tension between AMSA and the state governments which is causing the real problems,” concluded the representative.

The Australian Border Force (ABF) published a COVID-19 guidance, on 2 April, issuing a 14-day quarantine period for maritime crew arriving in Australia. However, how this guide is implemented is different from state to state (from allowing some on-signers to quarantine on a vessel, to quarantining in a hotel, causing delays to vessel voyages) further emphasising the need for a cohesive harmonised approach when it comes to seafarers and allowing crew change.

“Australia has an opportunity in the region, given its unique geographic position for short flights to repatriate crew back to their home countries in South East Asia, but ship owners and managers need to wade through the maze of Australia’s restrictions. We will help whoever wants to repatriate seafarers,” Summers told SAS.

An in-depth article on more on crew abandonment issues will be available in the SAS November edition. To subscribe to Safety at Sea magazine click here.