Heath Aston, 09 September 2015

Two months after Caltex sacked 36 Australian workers from the petrol tanker Alexander Spirit, saying there wasn’t enough work for the ship in Australia, the vessel is back going between ports in Queensland and the Northern Territory with an all-foreign crew.

The tanker was due to leave port at Townsville at 4pm on Wednesday bound for Cairns and then Groote Eylandt, 600 kilometres from Darwin.

Foreign ship crews, often made up of Filipino and Indian nationals, are paid at wage rates as low as $2 an hour and do not receive superannuation.

The Abbott government is fighting a political storm over its plans to open up domestic shipping to foreign-flagged vessels with all-foreign crews paid at the lower international rate.

Fairfax Media has revealed research which shows the move will slash the domestic seafarer industry from 1177 to just 88 mariners, a loss of 93 per cent of the workforce.

On Wednesday, Caltex spokesman Sam Collyer stressed the Alexander Spirit’s appearance in Australian waters did not contradict the company’s statements in July when it directed ship owner Teekay to replace its Australian crew with international seafarers.

He said the tanker was dropping off imported petrol in Townsville, Cairns and Groote Eylandt and had not gone back to shipping Australian-made product around the east coast. The tanker will continue to supply imported fuel into Australia.

The company has a 10-year lease on the tanker but the closure of its Kurnell and Lytton refineries in Sydney and Brisbane had made the 40,000-tonne tanker surplus to domestic requirements, Caltex said.

But a sacked Australian crew member, Andy Poynter, said that a representative of Teekay who came onboard during a sit-in by the crew in Devonport before its final journey, had said the ship was to redeploy for international work only.

“We put it to them, ‘Will this ship be back working in Australian waters, doing work we could do?’ but Teekay said it was ‘going international’ and that’s all they would tell us,” he said.

Mr Poynter said it was a “kick in the guts” to learn the Alexander Spirit was back going port to port in Australia. He is still waiting on a redundancy payment and said none of the 36 crew had yet found a new job.

In July, during the two week sit-in, Employment Minister Eric Abetz said that to suggest the workers were being made redundant in favour of overseas workers was “mischievous” and “disingenuous”.

But critics, including the Maritime Union, have pointed to a succession of Australian-based ships switching crews ahead of the government’s coastal shipping reforms being enacted.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott and his deputy Warren Truss have this week been under pressure in question time to explain why federal bureaucrats allegedly advised a West Australian cruise operator, Bill Milby, to “consider the option” of sacking his Australian crew of 50 and taking on a foreign crew to remain competitive once the coastline is opened to foreign competition.

The Australia Institute forecasts the share of domestic cruise ship work to decline from 40 per cent Australian to 100 per cent foreign and that all movements of iron ore, bauxite, petrol and crude oil between domestic ports would be taken by foreign crew under the impending changes.

Extracted in full from the Sydney Morning Herald.