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Asia-PacificAustraliaMaritimeNewsOcean shipping

Forcing crew into “slave” labor gets ships banned from Australia

Two ships have been banned from Australia by the local regulator because their crews were forced to work without pay in breach of the Maritime Labour Convention. “Modern-day slave labour,” declared the Australian Maritime Safety Authority, adding that the behavior of the ship operators was “reprehensible,” as well as “dishonest and predatory.” 

The Panama-flagged bulker Fortune Genius (IMO 9221877) and the Hong Kong-flagged bulker Xing Jing Hai (IMO 9728344) both have been banned from Australia for 12 and 18 months, respectively, by the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA). Both vessels have been banned as their crew were not paid their wages in full or on time, which is a breach of the Maritime Labour Convention.

Reprehensible, dishonest and predatory behavior, says AMSA

Pictured: Allan Schwartz, AMSA’s GM of operations, issued the order to ban the ships. “Operators will not make a profit in our waters on the back of modern-day slave labour. Not on our watch.” Photo: AMSA.

“Failure to pay crew their wages in full and on time is a reprehensible breach of the Maritime Labour Convention and one that AMSA will not tolerate,” said Allan Schwartz, AMSA’s general manager of operations, who issued the order to ban the ships.

“The operator of the Fortune Genius has acted in a dishonest and predatory fashion towards its seafarers, while the operator of the Xing Jing Hai has demonstrated a systemic failure to ensure its seafarers are paid properly.

“Our powers to ban ships for breaches of international maritime regulations are clear and these two operators will not make a profit in our waters on the back of modern-day slave labour. Not on our watch.”

Inspectors from AMSA boarded the vessels, the Fortune Genius in the Australian port of Gladstone and the Xing Jing Hai in Brisbane, after complaints from the global transport union, the International Transport Federation.

Both ships were banned from Australia on Sept. 13.

Banned: Fortune Genius

It was discovered that the Fortune Genius, operated by New Fortune Genius Management, had been running two sets of accounts — one showing what the crew should have been paid and the other showing what was actually paid. The crew had been underpaid by about A$100,000 (US$68,791) over the five months April to August.

The ITF targeted the Fortune Genius for an inspection on Sept. 5 upon its arrival because the operating company previously had been found to be in breach of the Maritime Labour Convention.

According to the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF), the Fortune Genius is ultimately owned by China-based Marine Fortune Union Company. The vessel had been chartered by South Korean company Five Ocean Corporation to transport coal from Gladstone, Australia, to Taean, South Korea. There is a large thermal power plant and coal terminal at Taean.

According to a statement from the ITF, the crew of the Fortune Genius reported that they had been “bullied and forced into working excessive hours for which they weren’t paid.” The crew told the ITF that they wanted help to leave the vessel and go home to Myanmar.

AMSA inspectors subsequently boarded the vessel on the same day. The ship was then detained.

ITF President Paddy Crumlin criticised the Australian federal government for allowing companies with poor records to operate in Australian waters.

“Australia is now almost entirely dependent on foreign flag of convenience vessels, often registered in tax havens and crewed by exploited workers on as little as $2 per hour,” Crumlin said.

“These vessels supply Australia’s fuel, carry our resources and move cargo around the coast. We are continuing to see a race to the bottom, with the federal government sitting on its hands as companies with notoriously poor labour records are allowed to operate in our waters.

Pictured: the bulker Fortune Genius, banned from Australia for 12 months. The ship had two sets of wage accounts – one showing what the crew should have been paid and another showing what the crew was actually (under)paid. Photo: AMSA.

Banned: Xing Jing Hai

Following a complaint from the ITF, inspectors from AMSA boarded the Xing Jing Hai on Sept. 11. They discovered that the crew on the Xing Jing Hai also were not paid correctly. Wages for May and June, totaling about US$51,000 had been paid late. Meanwhile, wages for July and August, totaling about A$140,000 (US$96,337) had not been paid.

AMSA immediately detained the ship.

ITF inspectors had earlier that day boarded the Xing Jing Hai. The vessel is ultimately owned by Chinese company Ocean Prosperity and managed by Dalian Shipping, according to the ITF. The ship was carrying a cargo of clinker, which is used to make cement.

ITF assistant coordinator Matt Purcell said that the incidents highlighted “serious exploitation” in Australia’s maritime supply chains. 

“These cases show that massive wage theft and the exploitation of vulnerable foreign seafarers are not an anomaly, they are a central feature of the business models of many of the shipping operators carrying freight to and from Australia,” he said. 

“AMSA deserves to be commended for acting swiftly once issues are identified, but the current system relies on the efforts of ITF inspectors and whistle-blowers among ship crews to identify problems, meaning countless cases of exploitation are slipping through the gaps.” 

Pictured: an amateur shot of the Xing Jing Hai taken by an AMSA inspector. There was massive underpayment of this ship’s crew. The ship was detained and ultimately banned. Photo: AMSA.

Unsubstantiated: Xing Ning Hai

A similar third complaint was made by the ITF against the vessel Xing Ning Hai at Port Kembla, which is primarily a coal and steel export port. Back in July 2018, AMSA inspected and detained the Xing Ning Hai after its inspectors discovered the crew were collectively owed A$215,000 (US$147,947). It was found that the manning agent had not passed on the crew’s wages. The ship operator terminated its contract with the manning agent and AMSA issued a warning to the ship operator. Xing Ning Hai was reinspected by AMSA a few days ago — it is a sister ship to the Xing Jing Hai — but the new allegations were not substantiated, AMSA said. 

Three ships were banned by AMSA from Australia in 2018 because they breached international maritime laws. These were the MSC Kia Ora, Thorco Luna and Shandong Hai Wang.

The first vessel to ever be banned from Australia was the box ship Vega Auriga (IMO 9347786), which was kicked out for three months in 2014. The Vega Auriga had been detained by AMSA three times since July 2013 owing to seafarer welfare failures, including improper payment of wages, inadequate living and working conditions and inadequate maintenance.

Maritime Labour Convention

The Maritime Labour Convention was adopted by representatives of governments, employers and workers at the International Labour Organization in February 2006 as a “seafarers’ bill of rights.” It sets out basic conditions of work on a wide variety of issues such as minimum ages, hours of work and rest, payment of wages, payment of annual vacation, repatriation, medical care, accommodation, food and catering, health and safety.

The Maritime Labour Convention entered into force on Aug. 20, 2013. According to the International Labour Organization, 82 countries, representing more than 90 percent of the gross tonnage of the world fleet, have ratified the convention.

Gross tonnage is not a measure of weight; rather it measures all the enclosed space on a ship.  It is a commonly quoted measurement that gives an idea of the size of a ship, a corporate fleet or the total world fleet. It also allows for the comparison of ships that are not alike.

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Jim Wilson, Australia Correspondent

Sydney-based journalist and photojournalist, Jim Wilson, is the Australia Correspondent for FreightWaves. Since beginning his journalism career in 2000, Jim has primarily worked as a business reporter, editor, and manager for maritime publications in Europe, the Middle East, Asia, and Australia. He has won several awards for logistics-related journalism and has had photography published in the global maritime press. Jim has also run publications focused on human resources management, workplace health and safety, venture capital, and law. He holds a degree in law and legal practice.

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