The Guardian May 8, 2002


Stand-off in battle to keep Australian crews

by Bob Briton

Heart-warming scenes on the wharves of the upper Spencer Gulf city of Port 
Pirie have strengthened the resolve of the crew refusing to leave the bulk 
cement carrier, the Canadian Shipping Line (CSL) vessel Yarra. Local 
people have rallied to the cause of the workers who are facing the sack and 
the prospect of being replaced by a Ukrainian crew at inferior rates of pay 
and with reduced conditions.

MUA officials, who rushed from Adelaide on May Day to advise their 
threatened members, have had locals press cash donations into their hands 
while walking through the town.

Businesses, including the local management of Coles and Woolworths and the 
distributors of Buttercup bread and Vili's pies have chipped in with food.

City Mayor Ken Madigan has gone public with his concern at the plight of 
the embattled seafarers and has made two visits to the ship. On the second 
occasion he came with crates of food after it became known that CSL had 
cancelled orders for new supplies.

ACTU President Sharan Burrow was due to arrive in Port Pirie last Sunday to 
address a protest rally about the scandal and to lead a march to the 
stranded ship. Buses were ready to bring supporters up from Adelaide for 
the event.

The company is very aware of the public relations disaster on its hands. 
Its plans to sell the ship to its Asian subsidiary, reflag out of the 
Bahamas and import a Ukrainian crew, have struck an unexpected snag.

Until recently, things seemed to be going CSL's way.

A fortnight ago the Federal Court rejected an application from the MUA that 
would have prevented the shipping company pulling off its coup.

Even the subsequent decision of the Court to grant an injunction against 
the changing of the crews until a full bench considers the matter in 
October gave CSL workers only a temporary reprieve.

The Federal Government, which has never missed an opportunity to portray 
itself as the defender of Australia's borders, is obviously quite happy to 
facilitate the plan that will nobble Australian operators trying to compete 
for trade in their own waters.

Federal Transport Minister John Anderson has overseen changes in the 
industry that have resulted in the current calamitous situation where only 
45 Australian flagged and crewed vessels remain in service.

However, it seems that CSL has been in too much of a hurry for its own 
good. In response to the hammering it has been taking over the Yarra, the 
mainstream media has stepped in to help CSL out.

Press reports repeatedly refer to the crew's protest as a "mutiny".

The Advertiser's journalists, for example, would have to be aware of 
the seriousness of the crime of mutiny. Large circulation dailies do not 
have legal departments for nothing.

While CSL presses ahead with its intention to switch crews despite the 
existence of an injunction against the plan until November, it is the 17 
crew members that are being described as law breakers.

The MUA's State Deputy Secretary Keith Ridgeway told The Guardian that 
the crew is continuing to work on board the ship.

The protest is restricted to preventing another crew taking the ship off 
the wharf. He also said that reports suggesting some sort of conflict 
between the workers and the captain, John Briggs, are mischievous.

As the Industrial Relations Commission was set to consider a report on the 
matter on Tuesday, the MUA was exploring all possible means of forcing the 
issue.

It has challenged the Federal Government to answer three questions relevant 
to the crisis:

* Have the Ukrainian seamen who will take the Australian jobs been granted 
access to Australia?

* If so, under what visa conditions?

* What dealings did the Howard Government have with CSL before it made the 
decision to de-flag and de-crew?

Internationally, the union contacted its Ukrainian counterpart for support. 
Moral support was forthcoming but the sad fact is that the Ukrainian 
industry has been disorganised and virtually destroyed by the same 
practices now being pioneered by CSL in Australia.

Keith Ridgeway was at pains when speaking to The Guardian to point 
out that the MUA's position in the dispute is not rednecked. They 
understand that it is misery and desperation that lead to guest labour 
crews moving in.

In another effort to get co-ordinated international backing for the union's 
position on flags of convenience and related issues, MUA National Secretary 
Paddy Crumlin recently addressed the International Transport Workers' 
Federation in London.

The case of the CSL again shows that the bosses are always prepared to take 
their struggle for increased profits to new levels.

They never hesitate to take advantage of the opportunities presented by the 
process of globalisation to drive wages and conditions down.

Their tactics are often breathtaking in their scope and ruthlessness.

The trade union movement will have to redouble its efforts to find an 
effective global response to this challenge.

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