The Guardian 13 July, 2005

Slave ship protest

Bob Briton

Seafarers and their supporters in the community held a protest outside the Port Road offices of Destiny Abalone in Adelaide last week. They were voicing their anger that the company still has a virtual prison ship anchored 12 kilometres ship off the coast near Tumby Bay, using Ukrainian and Chinese crew in conditions and at rates of pay way below those of the sacked Australian crew they replaced.

A number of the sacked workers were present at the gathering. For the time being, it appears the company has successfully exploited a gap in federal and state legislation to keep the workers on board the floating abalone farm on 12-month contracts.

The incredible saga began late last year when Hong Kong-based Destiny Shipping took over the ship in question from another Hong Kong firm, SAOE. An extensive refit of the ship was carried out. Destiny Abalone Group took over management of the ship and sacked all but four of the 20-plus Australian crew from the Destiny Queen and hired Ukrainian and Chinese seafarers instead. The company applied for and got approval from the Primary Industries and Resources authorities in South Australia to carry on its operation; a spokesman for the department later saying the welfare of the crew "was none of our business".

Destiny Abalone Group also set about getting the immigration status of the crew sorted out. SA Transport Minister Pat Conlon insists that the company gave "slippery" and "misleading" information to the state's immigration authorities who certified Destiny Abalone Group's visa applications before passing them onto the federal department:

"It's certainly misleading to go to a migration authority and tell them they need a visa for skills that don't exist in Australia when they have just sacked these [Australian] people", Mr Conlon told The Australian.

Company executive and spokesperson for Destiny Abalone, Leslie Wahlqvist, has denied various allegations made by the state government and the Maritime Union of Australia. "There are no loopholes or anything else. We have simply gone through the existing processes which are out there for anyone or every company in Australia to follow", she told ABC News.

That could well be true; the federal government has shown itself keen to promote guest worker arrangements that will break the back of the MUA where scabs, dogs and balaclava-wearing heavies failed. Protests from trade unions that bosses would exploit the skills shortage to employ low-wage guest workers under new legislation were ignored.

The company also insists that the current workers are well treated. They maintain the workers have come onshore once for an overnight sightseeing stay and are being paid higher rates than the Australian crewmembers were. However, Destiny Abalone is not saying how much that is. The agreement is not registered on the European Commission-operated database, Equasis. Representatives of the MUA and the International Transport and Workers Federation (ITF) have been repeatedly denied access to the ship.

Union sources point out that crews like the one on the Destiny Queen are among the lowest paid in the world. They are often paid as little as $US400 ($525) a month way below the US$1500 minimum set down for ITF-approved agreements.

The ball is still in the federal government's court. Speaking at last week's protest SA State MUA Secretary Jamie Newlyn, ACTU President Sharan Burrow and SA Unions Secretary Janet Giles all expressed their concern for the welfare of the foreign crew.

The ACTU President called on Immigration Minister Amanda Vanstone to grant the crew the type of working visa that would allow them to come ashore, live in the community and be paid the same as their Australian counterparts.

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