Bauxite shipping crew underpaid and underfed

The crew of a ship chartered by Rio Tinto has come to the attention of the International Transport Federation with reports of underpayment and poor conditions while operating in Australian waters, indicating systemic problems with the ‘flag of convenience’ system.

ITF national coordinator Dean Summers said the situation for the 21 member crew of the AOM Milena was dire, having received no wages since April, as well as running short on food supplies, and being forced to live and work in filthy conditions.

“Not content to employ seafarers from poverty-riddled nations on wages that amount to just $2 per hour, the operator of this ship has not paid a single cent in wages to these crew members since April,” Summers said.

Summers and another inspector boarded the ship yesterday at Gladstone to confirm new information that the crew had not been paid.

 “The food situation is equally dire, with the crew given just $50 per day to buy food for 21 people ahead of the next leg of their planned voyage, where they will sail to Weipa to collect a load of bauxite for Rio Tinto.

“The ship was just filthy, it was a grubby, grotty ship with a crew being treated badly, so I don’t suppose you can inspire seafarers much if you don’t feed them and pay them badly.

Summers said the “disgraceful” state of the ship led him to believe all systems on the ship should be checked, a move which would identify any potential risks to the environment of the Great Barrier Reef and coastal regions of northern Australia.

The bulk carrier was chartered by Rio Tinto as a coastal trader to carry bauxite from Weipa and Gove to the Alcan Yarwun Refinery north of Gladstone, to remain in Australian waters.

A spokesman for Rio Tinto said the company was investigating the allegations.

“The wellbeing, terms and conditions of the people serving on vessels chartered to carry Rio Tinto cargo is of the utmost importance to us,” the spokesman said.

“We will do everything possible under our contract to ensure the crew receive their full entitlements.”

It is understood Rio Tinto has sought assurances from ship charterer Augustea Ocean Bulk Maritime and Japanese head owners Hakuto Shipping that the issues will be resolved without delay.

It was also revealed that the ships operator was paid approximately US$230,000 per month in advance, and that Rio Tinto set down a condition in their charter contracts that the vessel must be ITF approved and that the crews employment terms and conditions are equivalent.

Summers said charterers such as Rio Tinto had a responsibility to their vessels  beyond financial concerns.

“Charterers have an enormous responsibility, they can’t just charter the cheapest ship and if it sinks just say ‘Oh well, it’s not our fault, we were just exploiting the market, that’s the way the system works’, there’s more to it than just the bottom line,” Summers said.

“If Rio Tinto wanted to transport this bauxite by road or rail, they’d need to pay Australian minimum wages and adhere to Australian health and safety regulations, but because they transport it by sea they can avoid those requirements and slash costs,” Summers said.

In defence of their failure to pay the crew of the AOM Milena, ship operator Keymax Maritime told the ITF there had been a mistake made with payment of the crew.

However, the ITF has identified other ships under Keymax with wage payment problems, including the Bulk Brasil which was detained at Port Kembla earlier this year.

“There was a hollow excuse made, but the facts are that we have a list of Keymax vessels, where this continues to happen,” Summers said.

“Keymax have a big fleet, and I’ve gone through with the Japanese ITF and we’ve identified a large number of their fleet with a systemic problem of non-payment of wages.”

Operating under the ‘flag of convenience’ system which allows it to avoid stricter local laws and regulations, the AOM Milena is Japanese-owned, registered in Panama, operated out of Portugal, and crewed solely by Filipino workers.

According to the ITF, proposed changes to coastal shipping introduced to Federal Parliament by transport minister Warren Truss last month will further deregulate the industry and allow the last remaining Australian-crewed vessels to be replaced by flag of convenience ships.

“On the same day this crew sailed into Gladstone, the second last Australian-crewed oil tanker was told to depart Devonport and head to Singapore, where the crew was to be replaced by exploited foreign workers on as little as $2 an hour,” Summers said.

 “On the eve of Warren Truss’s announcement that the government was going to take away any form of support for Australian shipping, and we’ve seen Caltex jump the gun and take their crews off, we’ve seen shipping take a steep decline because the coast has been opened up to the cheapest possible shipping, and this is a very dangerous situation for Australia,” Summers said.

The ITF has also identified the proposed legislative changes as a threat to Australia’s energy security, with international operators solely responsible for the transport of Australian fuel.

A senate inquiry into the ‘flag of convenience’ (FOC) shipping system has recently been launched in response to an ongoing coronial inquest into suspicious deaths which occurred aboard the FOC vessel Sage Sagittarius in 2013.

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