Cabotage Unraveled – Striking Tanker Crew Gains Support in Australia

Part of the Alexander Spirit crew lead the rally in Devonport, Tasmania, July 6, 2015. Photo: Maritime Union of Australia
Part of the Alexander Spirit crew lead the rally in Devonport, Tasmania, July 6, 2015. Photo: Maritime Union of Australia

 

About 200 people took to the streets of Devonport, Tasmania Monday in support of the Australian crew of an oil tanker who are refusing to sail after being told they would be replaced low-cost foreign workers.

The 36 crew members of the MT Alexander Spirit have been striking since last week after they were told that they would be replaced by a foreign crew on a new international route upon their arrival in Singapore.

The Bahamas-flagged Alexander Spirit began a 10-year time-charter with the Australian oil company Caltex in 2009 and was previously used on a domestic route shipping fuel from Caltex’s Lytton refinery to ports along Australia’s east coast. However, in a July 3rd statement the oil company said that the closure of BP’s Bulwer Island refinery has forced the oil company make changes to its Queensland fuel supply chain – putting the Teekay Shipping Australia-operated tanker and its 36 crew members out of work.

In the statement announcing the changes, Caltex said that “Alexander Spirit will be redeployed to the international fuel supply chain, spending most of its time in international waters competing against every other ship importing fuel into Australia.”

“As an Australian company competing against multinational fuel suppliers, Caltex needs to ensure the ship’s operational arrangements, including crewing, are aligned with industry so it is not at a competitive disadvantage,” the statement added.

The crew of the Alexander Spirit on strike in Devonport. Photo: MUA
The crew of the Alexander Spirit on strike in Devonport. Photo: MUA

 

On Monday, union members, local and high profile supporters, and even members of Alexander Spirit hit the streets of Davenport for the rally organized by Maritime Union of Australia (MUA).

In a statement posted to the union’s website on Monday, MUA Assistant National Secretary Ian Bray, who last week blamed Caltex’s decision on the Australian Government’s intention to unravel the country’s cabotage laws, said that Caltex was misleading the Australian public by insisting that there was not enough trade to sustain the Australian-crewed Alexander Spirit.

“I would love for Caltex to explain why the Liberian-flagged Stolt Kikyo is alongside in Geelong and what trip Caltex has planned for that vessel they have brought in to replace the Alexander Spirit,” he said.

“Why haven’t the soon-to-be redundant crew from the Alexander Spirit crew been offered replacement jobs on the vessel?

“Why is the Government allowing Caltex to run roughshod over the intent of Cabotage laws by allowing this replacement vessel to do what was, up until today, the Alexander Spirit run?

“So many unanswered questions and I think the crew has a right to know why they have been cast aside in the worst way possible,” Bray added.

Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) President Ged Kearney joined the rally and also condemned the actions of the liberal Government under Prime Minister Tony Abbott.

“The fact the Abbott Government is intent on passing legislation that they know will have an impact on local jobs shows how little regard they have for Australian workers,” Ms. Kearney said.

“The seafarers aboard the Alexander Spirit are the latest in the litany of workers being thrown on the scrapheap as a result of bad Government decisions,” she said.

In May, the Australian Government announced its new plan for coastal shipping, which included changes that would dismantle a comprehensive reform package delivered by the previous government in 2012, known as the Coastal Trading (Revitalising Australian Shipping Act) 2012, which created a level playing field for Australia’s domestic shipping and protects local Australian ships and crews from foreign Flags of Convenience (FOC).

Independent Tasmanian Senator Jacqui Lambie was also present at Monday’s rally and was given an opportunity to talk to the crew.

“If we’re going to act in our Nation’s best interest and guarantee Australian jobs and the skills base for our entire Maritime industry – it might be time to follow the example of the (others) and put in place policy measures which restrict coastal trade to Australian built, owned, crewed and flagged vessels,” Lambie said in a previous statement.

“If we follow the Liberal / National’s plan and abandon our Maritime industry solely to a free, liberalized market – and the influence of multinational corporations’ insatiable need for bigger profits – then Australia will place our food, fuel, energy and national security in the hands of foreigners.”

On Sunday, Tasmanian Labor Leader Bryan Green threw his support behind the crew members of the Alexander Spirit and also questioned the motives of Caltex for the move.

“Tony Abbott appears hell bent on unraveling cabotage arrangements which ensure Australian seafarers are employed on Coastal shipping routes,” Green said. “It won’t just be the 36 men and women aboard the Alexander Spirit who lose their jobs, if the Abbott Government gets its way and is able to completely dismantle the Coastal Trading Act, the jobs of all workers on Australian ships will be under threat.”

For now, the Alexander Spirit remains in Devonport.