The Maritime Union says that the responsibility for the Rena disaster lies with Government and authorities as much as with individual crew members.
Maritime Union of New Zealand General Secretary Joe Fleetwood says the arrest today of the master of the Rena on serious charges should not deflect attention away from the greater responsibility for the disaster.
He says New Zealand Government and authorities have created a situation where substandard flag of convenience shipping has been encouraged and enabled.
“1990s legislation from the then National Government created the so-called ‘open coast’ policy and this has meant that unacceptable practices have become the norm in New Zealand waters – it’s a case of out of sight and out of mind.”
Mr Fleetwood says a Maritime New Zealand “inspection” of the Rena in Bluff on 28 September 2011 apparently consisted of the inspector asking the Master whether previous problems had been fixed.
“This is the same Master that the authorities are now trying to pin the blame on a couple of weeks later after the disaster.”
“But at the time of the inspection they obviously were prepared to take the Master at his word that everything was hunky dory on his ship, despite the fact it had been hauled up in China and Australia for multiple problems.”
Mr Fleetwood says if this is the standard approach of Maritime New Zealand to dealing with obviously problematic vessels, the only surprise in the grounding of the Rena is that it hadn’t happened earlier.
He says the Union is very concerned about the welfare of crew members and wanted access to them to provide independent support.
“Can you imagine the stress of these seafarers, many with dependent families, who have spent nearly a week onboard a stricken vessel in mortal fear of their lives, and some only being taken off by helicopter after a Mayday call when the ship appeared to be in imminent catastrophe.”
He says it is now becoming a regular theme that systemic policy and regulation failures are resulting in serious harm to workers, the community and the environment.
“It is about time that the elected leaders started copping it when things go wrong rather than putting a smother over it and trying to shift the blame.”
He says the Union was repeating its call for all Maritime New Zealand reports on the Rena to be made public as soon as possible.
“If the authorities have managed to arrest the captain in such a fast manner, they can start to make public their own processes for full transparency and accountability to the New Zealand public.”
Mr Fleetwood says the Union has been arguing for stronger regulation of shipping for years in New Zealand waters, but Government’s have not wanted to hear the message.
He says the Union has had longstanding concerns that Maritime New Zealand regulations and inspections of flag of convenience vessels were superficial, limited and not strict enough.
The Union has compiled a short list of some of the flag of convenience shipping issues that it has been involved in over the last few years (see end of media release).
Mr Fleetwood says comment by Transport Minister Steven Joyce that the Maritime Union’s views were “political” were accurate.
“Mr Joyce is right. The issue is political. It is political because the John Key led National Government have been happy to have flag of convenience ships running on the New Zealand coast as a result of their political decisions.”
“In this case their political decision to promote and allow flag of convenience shipping on the New Zealand coast has had real life consequences, which have proved far beyond the political ability and the practical ability of the Government to deal with.”
“If we allowed trucks on New Zealand roads that were licensed in Liberia or some other semi-functioning failed state, and driven by unregulated overseas drivers, there would be an outcry. Yet that is what we allow on the New Zealand coast and now we are paying the price.”
Mr Fleetwood says in addition to its campaigning against Flag of Convenience shipping it had lobbied the Government last year with a plan to provide a fast response vessel for offshore oil spills.
The Union approached the Minister of Energy and Resources, Hon Gerry Brownlee, as well as the Minister of Transport Hon Steven Joyce and Minister of Environment Hon Nick Smith, in July 2010 to support the introduction of a ready response vessel for the maritime sector to cope with oil spills and similar events.
This ready response vessel would have been aimed at the offshore oil and gas industry but could easily have been used to quickly respond to oil leaks in the current Rena disaster.
The Union was told to send their information into a Ministry of Economic Development review, which it did.
Further background information: Some previous incidents on Flag of Convenience vessels in NZ waters including cargo and fishing vessels and crews
In May 2011, Southern Storm Fishing held a “media event” in Dunedin where journalists were invited on board to inspect their new vessel, the Oyang 75, that replaces the Oyang 70 that sank last year.
But less than two months later, in July 2011, the crew abandoned the Oyang 75 en masse in Lyttelton, claiming physical and verbal abuse and underpayment.
Overseas crew members left the ShinJi in Auckland due to underpayment and mistreatment. DOL investigating.
In 2009 the ITF and Maritime Union previously investigated the Shin Ji after 12 Indonesian crew members left the vessel.
Five Korean crew are confirmed dead and 17 missing presumed drowned after the No. 1 In Sung sank in the Southern Ocean in unexplained circumstances.
Oyang 70 fishing vessel sinks in Southern Ocean. Six deaths. Survivors brought to Lyttelton. Claims of underpayment by surviving crew investigated (Korean, Filipino, Indonesian, Chinese).
Two sailors, one Korean and one Burmese, died after suffocating in the TPC Wellington’s timber hold at Marsden Point wharf near Whangarei in May 2010.
10 Sri Lankan crew members aboard the MV Charelle docked at the Ports of Auckland were not paid for 3 ½ months.
The vessel and its previous crew were held by Somali pirates for six months last year, only being released after a ransom was paid on 3 December 2009.
Crew members were being paid well below ITF rates and even less than International Labour Organization (ILO) minimums.
The Liberian-flagged Annapurna was seized by creditors after it berthed in Auckland in 2009, following the bankruptcy of its owners Eastwind.
The Maritime Union looked after 23 Burmese crew members, some of the crew members had not been paid for up to a year.
12 Indonesian fishermen from joint venture fishing vessel Shin Ji leave vessel in Tauranga, citing non payment of wages, harassment and substandard conditions.
NZ$52,776 back pay obtained for crew and repatriation to country of origin.
The Maritime Union took action to recover the unpaid wages of a Russian crew aboard the Southern Pearl after it was arrested in the Ports of Auckland.
Burmese crew aboard Sky 75 in Timaru approach union for help.
Wages were unpaid, physical and verbal abuse. 10 Indonesian crew previously jumped ship in Nelson in 2005 with similar claims.
Joint venture fishing vessel Malakhov Kurgan involved in crew dispute in Lyttelton.
Crew wished to be paid New Zealand minimum wage when working in New Zealand waters. Threats from Ukraine based employers received by crew.
9 Indonesian fishermen from Korean fishing vessel Marinui jump ship in Dunedin, claiming severe physical and mental abuse.
Crew were being paid US$6 per day. Repatriation and backpay organized.
33-year old Vietnamese fishermen Vo Minh Que drowned near Stewart Island after falling from the trawler Tasnui.
Maritime New Zealand reported that poor condition of vessel and lack of safety gear or procedures contributed to his death.
Several watersiders were lucky to escape when several tonnes of collapsing equipment from a ship’s crane crashed onto the wharf at Southport in Bluff on Wednesday 14 January 2004.
At around 1.30pm, a gantry crane on board the Marshall Island-flagged ‘Tasman Independence’ had a large turntable crash onto the wharf with cargo after metal ropes snapped.
Three waterfront workers and a forklift driver were ‘a couple of metres away’ from where the wreckage fell.
A crane on board the Hong Kong-flagged Maritime Friendship snapped while loading logs onboard at Port Chalmers at around 9.18pm on Friday 28 November 2003.
The boom of the crane swung around onto the operators’ cab, breaking windows and bending the cab’s window frame.
A local watersider operating the crane had to dive for cover in the back of the cab.
International incidents of note with Flag of Convenience vessels in recent years include the grounding of the Panamanian flagged bulk carrier “Pasha Bulker” in Newcastle, Australia, 8 June 2007.