Maritime Union of Australia calls on McGowan Government to add Seafarers to Essential Workers list

The Maritime Union of Australia is again urging the WA Government to intervene in the desperate situation that has Australia’s Maritime and Oil and Gas industries on the verge of shutdowns if West Australia’s hard border to Eastern States remains in place.

WA’s hard border with Australia’s Eastern states is blocking Australian workers with safety-critical skills from getting back to Western Australia.

MUA National Secretary and President of the International Transport Workers Federation (ITF), Paddy Crumlin, said, “If these workers leave WA and return to their home states, they will be unable to get back, leaving the Maritime and Oil and Gas Sectors at risk of a critical labour shortage. This could have a devastating environmental, safety and economic impact within Western Australia and is at odds with Australia’s broader economic and strategic interests; productive offshore oil and gas facilities and onshore operations are at risk of reduced production or shutdown.”

Under current entry arrangements, international seafarers can enter Western Australia to join a vessel, but Australian domestic seafarers are refused entry at the WA border.

“The industry is facing the very real possibility of serious consequences as a result of preventable and foreseeable skills shortages in critical areas,” Mr Crumlin said.

“We have been working with industry from the onset of COVID-19, together, seeking to deepen the understanding of governments both domestically and internationally on the essential role that seafarers play in global economic and supply chain security,” he said

Many seafarers from the eastern states of Australia have been forced to relocate to WA as the industry grapples with never before seen movement restrictions. There seems to be no indication when they may be able to return to their home states or be re-united with families and vital support networks. Many seafarers have been away from their loved ones for over 6 months.

“These workers plan to return home for Christmas, meaning they will be unable to return to WA and provide their vital skills here given the current WA border closures,” said MUA WA Branch Secretary, Will Tracey.

Even with these relocated workers here, there is a shortage of seafarers in each of the safety critical classifications required under law to operate vessels. Each classification requires specialist skills and certification, including Masters and navigational officers, engineers, deck ratings, catering staff and other trades.

Seafarers with these skills live throughout Australia but come to WA to work for weeks or months at a time. The industry has always relied on Australian domestic seafarers travelling into and out of WA, wherever they may permanently reside in Australia.

Critically for the industry and the WA Government, should workers from New South Wales, Victoria and other eastern states return home and be forbidden from returning to WA for their next stint on board, vessels operating in WA will not meet the legislated minimum crewing standards.

Many vessel operations will be forced to cease, with flow on effects at oil and gas facilities unable to be supplied with safety essential components, food and personnel. This in turn could force further shut-downs under the relevant operational safety requirements for those facilities.

“Some of the biggest operators in the Oil and Gas sector have made their concerns very clear. We know that like us, industry bodies such as CME, AMMA, MIAL have pleaded with the WA Government to have Seafarers added to the Western Australian Government’s Essential Workers list,” Mr Tracey said.

“Without Essential Worker status, the industry will be under extreme pressure, impacting the Western Australian economy and we could see hundreds, possibly thousands, of job losses through the state as the effects of this ripple through the economy.”

Australia has four Australian-crewed and flagged LNG ships operating out of the North West under the LNG Continuation of Operations Agreement.

“These vessels have maintained more than 25 years of safe, continuous operation exporting Australian gas internationally with Australian crews. They have safely operated throughout the COVID-19 pandemic under special arrangement with the WA Government and WA Police, which up until recently ensured exemption arrangements were in place to allow the operation of these strategically important vessels,” Mr Crumlin said.

A significant proportion of the crew aboard these Australian ships are based on the East Coast of Australia.

“Due to the recent increases in COVID-19 cases in both New South Wales and Victoria, a hard border with those states has been re-established, which has created serious skills shortages in safety critical areas on those ships,” said MUA Sydney Branch Deputy Secretary Paul Garrett.

“Forty-five percent of these crews don’t live in Western Australia. Engineers with the appropriate cryogenic qualifications to work aboard the LNG ships are unable to get to work along with specialised Australian Deck crew and officers because of a lack of functional engagement by the Western Australian Government with our industry and the lack of political will to support these essential workers,” Mr Garrett said.

“We have witnessed key personnel unable to travel cross-border from their home states having to resign their jobs.”

Each of the four Australian LNG ships have a complement of skilled Australian crew across two ‘swings’, many in safety critical cryogenic functions.

“Under the relevant legislation, it is not possible to safely and continuously operate the four ships with insufficient key personnel. There are serious concerns for the wellbeing of the Australian crew forced to undertake much longer swings away from home to meet the skills shortages,” Mr Garrett said.

There are key personnel available to travel and cover the shortages. Trident LNG who provides the Australian crew for these LNG vessels made two applications a fortnight ago seeking exemptions for crew to transit through quarantine and then move to Karratha under the COVID controls that have been established with the WA Police. Twice, this has been rejected by WA Police.

The net effect is that North-West Shelf Shipping Service Company (NWSSSC), who operate the four Australian LNG ships, have advised that they intend to suspend operation on the Australian Flagged Northwest Sanderling as consequence of the hard-border for domestic seafarers seeking entry to WA.

The vessel will load out at the Woodside Karratha Gas Plant tomorrow, 29 October 2021, and discharge in Japan on 12 November 2021. It is then expected to proceed to Singapore where it will be laid up for at least four months, if not indefinitely.

“NWSSSC have advised that they are experiencing issues obtaining a ship under charter to replace the Northwest Sanderling on the run. They have further advised that the charter rates have been “astronomical,” said Mr Garrett.

If these workers were designated Essential Workers by the WA Government and given an appropriate exemption to enter and work these ships, there may still be some shortages, however, it would facilitate the continued operation of domestic LNG ships and importantly, stop the Northwest Sanderling from being removed from trade.

“If the Northwest Sanderling is taken off her international run as a consequence of internal border restrictions, Australian seafaring jobs will effectively be exported when these crew are replaced by international seafarers in Western Australia,” Mr Tracey said.

“It is absurd that Australian seafarers can’t get into WA to work these ships but a crew from overseas could fly in and walk up a ship’s gangway,” he said.

“The MUA is seeking immediate intervention by the WA government to facilitate the safe and effective movement of Australian domestic seafarers across the WA border. There is a weight of best practice seafarer movement methodology available from other states in Australia and a pathway for safe seafarer travel into WA exists,” MUA National Secretary Paddy Crumlin said.

“The risk to the community can be managed while maintaining Australia’s supply chain security and the economic benefits Western Australians rely on,” Mr Crumlin added.

“We would welcome a considered and immediate solution that effectively addresses this desperate situation and we remain absolutely committed to working with the WA government, Health experts and industry to establish consistent frameworks for the safe movement of Australian seafarers,” he said.

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