The Guardian • Issue #1969

Maritime Union of Australia takes the fight to Parliament House

Canberra is known for its cold mornings, and the 23rd June was no exception. The temperature hovered around three degrees as the men and women of the Maritime Union of Australia gathered on the lawns of Parliament House to call on the government to save Australian shipping.

I talked with several union members huddled around a gas heater, and they shared their stories. Some of the workers were on board the MV Portland, an ore carrier ship, when they were sacked with no notice and forcibly removed by security guards. An Australian ship, with an Australian crew, carrying Australian cargo, was replaced by a foreign crew. It’s all too common in the shipping industry, and under the last eight years of Coalition government, Australia has lost over 500 shipping jobs.

Over a hot cup of coffee, I talked to a worker turning sausages on the barbeque. He offered me one, and I accepted. We started talking about the Portland issue, and his voice took a darker tone. “There’s a lot of modern-day slavery off Australian coasts,” he says. The fight against slavery has been a union issue for years. Many ships in Australian ports use highly exploited workers paid as little as $2 per hour, working exclusively on the Australian coast, moving cargo between Australian ports, yet the federal government issues them temporary licences that allow them to avoid local wages and conditions.

Another worker introduced himself to me. He works at a coal terminal in Newcastle. He admits the days of coal are numbered, but he’s optimistic about the future of renewable energy. Offshore wind farms can provide much-needed jobs and energy to former coal towns, but the Liberal cuts to TAFE, he says, have made it impossible to train enough people to make them.

Federal Labor MP Fiona Phillips, member for Gilmore on the New South Wales South Coast gave a speech on the importance of protecting Australian shipping. For an island nation dependent on shipping for ninety-eight per cent of imports and exports, Australia only has twelve Australian flagged and crewed cargo ships left. Not one of those ships is an oil tanker, with dire implications for Australia’s fuel security.

With the government continuing the war on workers, abandoning Australia’s economic security and ignoring the slavery off Australian coasts, it’s unlikely they will make changes any time soon. “There’s only one way out of this,” a worker says, gesturing up to the building on the hill. “We have to vote that lot out.”

The Communist Party of Australia demands the Australian government build a national shipping line operated by local workers.

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