AS the inquest into the deaths of three foreign sailors prepares for its next hearings, the International Transport Workers Federation is warning that proposed shipping reforms could prove dangerous not just to ship workers but to Australia's national security.
In Canberra this week, ITF coordinator Dean Summers met with Shadow Infrastructure minister Anthony Albanese. Both are calling for a Senate Inquiry into the planned reforms.
In Australia, the ITF is associated with the Maritime Union of Australia.
The reforms announced by Deputy Prime Minister Warren Truss would allow ships registered in foreign countries and crewed by foreign crews, to operate within the domestic industry.
This would make Australian domestic shipping cheaper. Using Australian-owned and crewed ships is far more costly due to minimum wage and workplace safety laws.
Ships can be registered with developing nations in an effort to avoid taxation or scrutiny.
There are called "flags of convenience" vessels.
Any ship that operates for longer than a six month stint would be forced to follow local wage minimums and hire at least two Australians in senior positions. Anything less would also ships to pay workers far below the local standard, often less than $10,000 a year.
The ITF fears that these ships would simply be swapped out every six months to ensure no limits are ever broken.
Mr Summers has called for a Senate Inquiry into the proposed changes, to highlight what he calls "the high cost of cheap shipping", particularly after three men mysteriously died aboard the Sage Sagittarius, now notoriously known as the "death ship".
Mr Albanese said the Senate must look at these reforms "with our eyes open"
"The questions that are out there include what checks, if any, are made into the backgrounds of the crew of these vessels.
Mr Summers said even beyond the poor conditions often faced by workers on foreign ships, the reforms could be dangerous if sailors aren't properly scrutinised.
"Cheap and nasty shipping isn't cheap but it sure is nasty and we have seen that on the Sage Sagittarius. But it's not an isolated case.
"We have to understand the true costs to our national security because, as Anthony has just said, every Australian maritime worker has to go through an extreme high level of background - the highest level of background and security checks - for any Australian worker - through ASIO, through the Fed Police, through the state police, through Immigration and Customs.
"Every one of our workers must be background security checked to the highest level.
"But is that that same on flag of convenience? Certainly not, certainly not."
Mr Truss said as a signatory to international marine labour laws, a safety net is already in place for foreign workers to ensure proper accommodation, health protection, medical care and social security.
This is enforced by the Australian Maritime Safety Administration locally.
A spokesman for Mr Truss said de-regulating the industry would help stop the fall in use of domestic shipping, which has halved in the past 10 years.
"All ships will still have to meet Australia's strict maritime safety and environment provisions," he said.
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