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Tuesday, 20 September 2011
Page: 10878


Ms PARKE (Fremantle) (19:19): I welcome the Navigation Amendment Bill 2011 and its provisions, which both facilitate Australia's ratification of the International Labour Organisation's Maritime Labour Convention and amend provisions in line with the convention's guidelines on vessel tracking. These steps are consonant with the government's National Ports Strategy, which is a very important item of future planning for Australia, and are therefore consistent with a reform program that follows from a careful and serious process of consideration.

The material that has fed into that process includes the submissions and the report from the House Standing Committee on Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Local Government's inquiry into coastal shipping policy and regulation. I made a submission to that inquiry, not least because the electorate I represent includes Western Australia's largest and busiest general cargo port. Fremantle port is a key part of Australia's sea freight infrastructure, and, as the Minister for Infrastructure and Transport has pointed out, shipping is by itself an incredibly important part of the Australian economy. It carries 99 per cent of this country's trade by volume, which in turn accounts for 10 per cent of the world's seaborne trade.

The harbour was designed by CY O'Connor, one of Western Australia's most brilliant individuals, and it continues its historic function as WA's principal point of freight arrival. It handles approximately 80 per cent of seaborne imports by value, but the port is remarkable for reasons other than the scale and value of the cargo it handles. The Fremantle branch of the Maritime Union of Australia is the largest branch of the union in the nation; what is more, it is growing substantially at a time when we are being told that the relevance of unions is in decline.

Collective labour is and always will be an essential balancing force in a market economy in which the odds are stacked against the individual worker and in favour of employers and large corporations. What is more, the wider values of the labour movement—its characteristic concern with shared welfare, public goods, social bonds and common wealth—underpin fairness and the pursuit of equality in Australia and elsewhere. It is understandable, though sad and incorrect, that in periods of macroeconomic strength there emerges the misconception that the importance of the labour movement, of unions and of collective bargaining has somehow passed. That is not only wrong but also dangerous. A workforce that is de-unionised, casualised and increasingly employed on a contract basis is an insecure workforce that is vulnerable to exploitation. Whenever the economy strikes difficult weather, vulnerable workers are the first overboard. Let us not forget that, during the global financial crisis, the mining sector in this country—which some later claimed had rescued the Australian economy by itself—laid off 15 per cent of its workforce. It did so because it could; it is an industry in which casual and contract employment has become commonplace. The Navigation Amendment Bill springs from the Labor government's recognition that labour values and workplace rights are human rights. As part of our commitment to those values and those rights, this bill amends the Navigation Act to achieve a series of outcomes. First, it will ensure the act conforms with the guidelines in the Maritime Labour Convention that establish a foundation of basic living and working conditions for seafarers who work on vessels engaged in commercial shipping. This is a necessary precondition for Australia's ratification of the convention. Second, it will provide for the issue of Maritime Labour Convention compliance certificates to Australian ships and allow for the inspection of all ships at Australian ports by Australian Maritime Safety Authority surveyors to ensure that the requirements of the MLC are being met. Finally, it will amend the definition of 'vessel traffic service' in order to widen the relevant regulation-making power. This provides the legal basis for the extension of current vessel-tracking services, from 1 July, to cover the southern region of the Great Barrier Reef. The significance of this, of course, is that it forms part of the government's response to the grounding on that e Great Barrier Reef of the Shen Neng I in April last year.

The International Labour Organisation's Maritime Labour Convention is a critical statement of workplace principles. Adopted in February 2006, its pre-eminence as a code of maritime labour protections has led to it being known as the 'seafarer's bill of rights'. The essential areas covered by the convention include: minimum workplace requirements and conditions of employment; accommodation, recreational facilities, food and catering; and health protection, medical care, welfare and social security protection.

We should not for a moment think that those things are naturally guaranteed or that the Maritime Labour Convention is merely symbolic. Indeed, earlier this year a ship at dock in Fremantle was the subject of an industrial dispute that revealed some unsavoury practices. The ship, Bader III, owned by a company based in Jordan, flagged in the Bahamas and crewed by seafarers from Pakistan and the Philippines, was chartered by Livestock Shipping Services in South Perth. The dispute centred on a breach of agreement between the shipowners and crew that had been running for more than a year. In response to the crew's agitation at being paid less than half their entitlements, the shipowners rescinded all shore leave and threatened any crew member who chose to speak with Australian authorities or representatives of the International Transport Workers Federation with 'harsh punishment'.

It is a credit to the courage and resolution of the men on this ship that they ignored this bullying and these threats, that they did protest their treatment and that they did engage the assistance of the International Transport Workers Federation, the Maritime Union of Australia and the Labor Party. In turn, Dean Summers from the ITF, Chris Cain from the MUA and Fran Logan MLA, the Western Australian member for Cockburn, acted quickly to highlight and protest the unacceptable conditions under which these seamen were being forced to work.

This is an example of the kinds of circumstances that can occur and that are likely to affect vulnerable maritime workers. This is an example of the kind of 19th century industrial inequity and exploitation that still occurs and that can also occur in Australia, in Fremantle harbour, because of the nature of sea transport. It represents a breach of workers' rights and of human rights that should not occur anywhere. And it is by implementing the measures contained in this bill that we not only guard against them occurring in Australian ports and on Australian ships but also actually play a role in extending the observance of these rights to other parts of the world. Just as the Bader III was able to bring workplace oppression and human rights abuses across the sea and into an Australian port, so too our strengthened capacity to seek out and respond to such oppression will spread its protective influence beyond our waters.

In conclusion, this bill is part of providing greater workplace protection and compliance both for Australian seafarers and for all seafarers on ships that visit Australian ports. What is more, it improves and strengthens the vessel-tracking capacity and ship-reporting system that operates in our waters, which in turn provides greater general oversight and environmental protection. I support the bill and I commend the minister for this further achievement in bringing reform to shipping and to sea freight administration and infrastructure in Australia.