Australian seafarers win legal victory

A group of Australian merchant crewmen have won what was described by the Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) as a “significant” legal victory.

The sailors took part in a two-month sit-in to prevent their vessel, the MV Portland, from being replaced by foreign flag-of-convenience ships crewed by exploited workers, the MUA said.

The seafarers and the MUA have been in a four-and-a-half-year legal battle with the Fair Work Ombudsman, which is seeking fines and damages over allegations the crew’s refusal to leave the vessel constituted unlawful industrial action.

In November 2015 the crew found out from media reports that Alcoa was planning to sack 40 Australian seafarers and sell the MV Portland, a bulk carrier which had been carrying alumina from Kwinana in Western Australia to its Portland Aluminium Smelter in Victoria for 27 years.

The 10 crew on board refused to sail the vessel to Singapore, where it was intended to be sold, occupying the vessel for two months before they were forcibly removed by security guards in the dead of night and replaced by a foreign crew.

Federal Court Justice Mordecai Bromberg has ruled in favour of the MUA’s argument that a clause in the vessel’s employment agreement that stated it was in place “whilst the vessel operates in the trade” meant it had ceased to apply at the time of the sit-in.

Bromberg J said that, given the critical nature of this argument to the FWO’s case, it would seem to follow that the substantive proceeding should be dismissed.

MUA Assistant National Secretary Ian Bray said the decision was “a significant win”, adding that “for four-and-a-half years, the Fair Work Ombudsman has pursued legal action against the union and our members, refusing numerous attempts to mediate a resolution and instead taking it to trial in the Federal Court”.