Rio Tinto has responsibility to avoid bad operators, say unions
Twenty-one men on board a vessel tasked to pick up bauxite from Weipa were left to starve by the Qatari shipping company that owns the vessel, angering officials in Australia.
The Panama-flagged bulk carrier Movers 3 has been anchored off Weipa for a month and food had to be purchased and delivered to the ship after the crew ran out of provisions.
The Australian Maritime Safety Authority, which placed the ship in detention on March 4, has slammed operator Aswan Shipping for its negligent practices.
AMSA has also detained sister ship Maryam in Port Kembla for “serious breaches”.
In Weipa, the issues with MV Movers 3 became apparent when the bulk loader was pushed out of the shipping channel during a big storm on March 3.
Tug boats were able to push the vessel back to a safe place and it has been anchored 200 metres outside the channel ever since.
“On March 4, AMSA detained the Panama-flagged bulk carrier Movers 3 for failing to carry out periodical surveys of the ship, and for appalling working and living conditions onboard,” an AMSA spokesperson said last week.
“AMSA’s inspection revealed the operator had failed to carry out six periodical surveys designed to check the ship’s compliance with minimum safety and operational standards.
“AMSA’s inspection also revealed a defective freezer room onboard the ship which was resulting in unsafe and insufficient food stores for crew, and dwindling fresh water supplies.”
The Australian Maritime Union and the International Transport Workers’ Federation said Rio Tinto had to accept some responsibility.
Ian Bray is the ITF coordinator for Australia and said Rio Tinto could be a part of the solution by doing proper checks on shipping companies before they were hired.
“You can’t make grand statements about modern slavery and then use companies that are starving employees,” he said.
“It’s one thing to have a piece of paper on the wall, you need to walk the walk.”
Mr Bray said Rio Tinto should have been aware of the issues plaguing Aswan Shipping.
The company made headlines in January when 19 seafarers aboard its MV Ula bulk carrier vessel undertook an urgent hunger strike in the port of Shuaiba, Kuwait.
Aswan owes seafarers aboard the MV Ula more than US $410,000 in unpaid wages, as well as repatriation flights home.
“This company is a notorious offender of regulation responsibility and compliance,” Mr Bray said.
“Aswan has now left seafarers abused, exploited or abandoned all across the globe. It’s been blacklisted by overseas authorities and one of its bosses is on the run from the Qatari cops: if those aren’t grounds for banning them, I don’t know what is.”
Maritime Union of Australia’s state secretary Jason Miners said there were many more ships being used by Rio Tinto and other companies that were not being compliant.
“AMSA has had the guts ripped out of its resources,” he said.
“If it gets bad enough, AMSA will pick up on it, but more and more ships are getting away with not meeting regulations.”
Mr Miners agreed that Rio Tinto had some responsibility.
“If they knowingly use and keep engaging that business to deliver cargo then that’s a practice they accept,” he said.
“Rio Tinto is the second largest mining house in the world. They shouldn’t be chartering ships with below third-world conditions.”
In a statement, Rio Tinto said one of its customers had contracted Aswan Shipping.
“Rio Tinto confirms that a vessel chartered by one of its customers to transport bauxite from Australia to China has been detained by authorities,” the miner said.
“The welfare of the crew is Rio Tinto’s primary concern and we have provided fresh provisions to ensure the health of the crew while we work with authorities and our customer to have the ship owner address issues raised by AMSA.”
Rio Tinto would not comment if it was reviewing its practices around the use of customers hiring shipping companies.
Cape York Weekly understands that Rio Tinto has contacted the bauxite customer and instructed them to liaise with Aswan and fix the problems with the ship.
Meanwhile, the fate of the 21 crew members on Movers 3, still anchored in the outer Weipa harbour, is up in the air.
There were originally 22 crew members but the on-board cook was taken to Cairns for a 14-day quarantine period and is awaiting repatriation.
The remaining crew, who are a mix of Turkish and Jordanian nationals, have each been on the vessel for between three and six months.
However, the ITF is concerned that Aswan may be withholding their promised bonuses as the company continues to ignore its crew aboard the Ula in Kuwait, and fails to pay basic diesel bills in Port Kembla.
“The ITF is still establishing the extent of potential labour breaches by Aswan towards the crew onboard Movers 3,” a spokesperson for ITF said.
Making sure the crew aboard the two anchored ships are not left to starve is the top priority for AMSA.
“The welfare of the seafarers on both Movers 3 and its sister ship Maryam is AMSA’s highest priority, followed closely by the safety and seaworthiness of these ships,” an AMSA spokesperson said.
“Crews on both ships have access to provisions and fresh water, those that have requested repatriation are having those requests facilitated wherever possible.
“We are maintaining open lines of communication with both crews.
“Other parties including Mission to Seafarers in Port Kembla, Rio Tinto in Weipa and the International Transport Workers’ Federation, are also prioritising the welfare of the seafarers.
“We thank them for their proactive involvement.
“That said, this does not excuse Aswan Shipping from its responsibility to provide decent working and living conditions on its ships for its seafarers.
“We fully expect Aswan Shipping to step up and start fulfilling its obligations under the Maritime Labour Convention.
“AMSA is disappointed by the operator, Aswan Shipping, and its continued reluctance to fulfil the most basic of obligations to take care of the health and safety of the seafarers onboard its ships.
“AMSA takes a zero-tolerance approach to sub-standard ships operating in Australian waters and these ships will remain under detention until their serious deficiencies are rectified.”
Both the ITF and Maritime Union of Australia believe Aswan Shipping will turn its back on both the men and the two ships.
“As far as we can tell, they have gone broke and their vessels are in a really bad state,” a union source said.
“It’s unlikely they’ll do anything to fix this.
“Those ships could be stuck in Australia forever.”
This article appeared in Cape York Weekly, 5 April 2021.