Labor And Greens Align Against ‘WorkChoices On Water’

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The government is seeking to deregulate Australia’s coastal shipping trade, but it’s likely to face a tough battle from Labor and the Greens when the Bill gets to the Senate. Thom Mitchell reports.

Labor heavyweight Anthony Albanese delivered a scathing address in the Federal Parliament yesterday in support of the Maritime Union of Australia, which is alarmed that the jobs of thousands of workers it represents are threatened by Coalition reforms to Australian coastal shipping laws.

Albanese said a Bill introduced by the government in the House of Representatives yesterday was “obscene” and effectively amounted to “WorkChoices on Water”.

“It will allow overseas flagged and crewed ships, paying workers third world wages, to undercut Australian operators on domestic trade routes,” he said.

The Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) said that the Bill would open the door to ships paying workers as little as $2 an hour. “It will have the effect of removing the jobs of over 2,000 highly qualified Australian seafarers,” the union said in its submission to a Senate Inquiry tasked with looking into the Bill.

“The government’s own cost benefit analysis estimates that 93 per cent of Australian seafarer jobs will be destroyed,” the MUA submission said. Yesterday, Albanese noted “the explanatory memorandum attached to the legislation says that 88 per cent of the economic benefit the changes will deliver will come from reduced labour costs”.

The government is attempting to deregulate shipping off Australia’s coast, removing longstanding labour protections and disassembling reforms introduced by the Labor government in 2012. The reform it’s pursuing would replace a tiered licensing system that protects Australia’s shipping industry with a single license, available to Australian and foreign-flagged ships alike, which would allow a vessel to trade off Australia’s coast for up to 12 months.

Foreign shipping companies would not be obliged to look for Australian employees first, and the seafarers they hire would not need to be paid in accordance with Australian wages and conditions.

One slight protection built into the proposed regime is that the new licensing system would require foreign companies to treat workers in accordance with Australian labour law after 183 days, but Albanese said there’s no reason to believe this will happen in reality.

“Overseas shipping companies will obtain permits, operate vessels on the Australian coast for up to 183 days in the year and then replace them with other vessels so that the 183-day clock can start all over again for the remainder of the year,” he said.

The Shadow Transport Minister also revisited a scandal that emerged earlier this year when Bill Bilby, the owner of North Star Cruises, went public with concerns about how the reform would affect his Australian business.

“Mr Milby approached departmental official Judith Zielke, who was with the minister, who told him that if he wanted to remain competitive under the new regime he should re-register his vessel overseas and sack his 50 Australian staff and replace them with cheap foreign labour,” Albanese said.

“Mr Milby followed up with another meeting with Ms Zielke and also Michael Sutton in Canberra a few weeks later, where he received identical advice.”

The Deputy Prime Minister Warren Truss has spearheaded the government’s deregulatory efforts, which the Coalition claims would simplify coastal shipping laws and help business. Truss argued in May that “the case for reform is crystal clear”.

“Coastal shipping volumes have continued to decline and the number of Australian-flagged vessels continues to slip, with only 15 major trading vessels remaining with a general licence to undertake coastal trading,” Truss said.

“Ships in Australia on transitional licences are leaving too; when the current system started there were 16, now there are just eight.”

Government Whip Brett Whiteley continued Truss’ line of attack yesterday, arguing coastal shipping is suffering “because of the self-interested and uncompetitive voice of the unions and their Labor puppets”. But Albanese said the reform would see jobs, the environment and national security “thrown overboard by a government blinded to the national interest by its hatred of the Maritime Union of Australia”.

As the Bill went before Parliament yesterday the National Secretary of the MUA, Paddy Crumlin said “a ship carrying goods between Sydney and Melbourne should logically come under the same safety, environmental and labour regulation as a truck plying the same route overland”.

He said Malcolm Turnbull needed to give substance to his claim he wanted to be more consultative by speaking to shipping industry stakeholders about their concerns rather than “pushing forward with a disastrous, controversy-laden, Abbott-era policy”.

“Thousands of people will be consigned to unemployment, probably long-term, if these amendments are allowed to pass,” Crumlin said.

“The government’s own report [admits it]did not take into account economic impacts associated with job losses.”

Thom Mitchell

Thom Mitchell is New Matilda's Environment Reporter.

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