International Transport Workers Federation (ITF) officials have been involved in stopping a Japanese-owned car import vessel from slipping through Australian authorities’ fingers in the Port of Melbourne. The ship had brought vehicles to Australia earlier this week, including the Great Wall, Hyundai, Kia and Subaru brands

Japanese vehicles carrier arrested in Melbourne over crew change
Caption: Vehicles carrier Metis Leader - Image courtesy of adamlef

A number of seafarers on the Panamanian-flagged MV ‘Metis Leader’ had been working aboard the vessel in excess of the 11 months maximum permitted under the Maritime Labour Convention and vessels flagged to Panama, as well as the 14 months limit allowed by Australian authorities.

ITF Assistant Coordinator for Australia, Matt Purcell, said the international body and its affiliates detected the car carrier as having seafarers on board beyond acceptable limits. He said that at the time of the ship’s arrest there were:

  • Five seafarers on the verge of 12 months working aboard;
  • Two seafarers aboard for 14 months;
  • Three seafarers aboard for more than 15 months, including the ship’s captain.

“Keeping seafarers working aboard a ship for this long is both in violation of their rights and a recipe for human and environmental disaster,” said Purcell.

“All workers have a right to stop working upon completion of the contracts the initially signed up for. To deny any seafarer the ability to get off a ship and go home to their families, means that they are forced to keep working. What has happened here could give rise to a situation of forced labour.”

Purcell said the ship owner’s agents, Japanese manning companies World Marine Company and WSS Shipping Agencies, attempted to stop union inspectors from coming aboard to inspect the welfare of the crew and assist in rescuing the crew from the situation.

“The company tried to block us from coming aboard the ship and putting an end to them keeping these seafarers against their will,” he said.

Purcell said the ship owner’s agents tried to use Covid-19 as an excuse to stop him coming aboard, despite the fact that in the same day Victoria had recorded just two new cases from a population of almost five million people.

“Clearly the company didn’t want us to learn the full extent of their deception of this vulnerable crew and their plans to carry on this forced labour charade into another month.”

Thankfully, ITF contracts covering the ship gave Purcell the right to board the ship and assess the crew’s situation in person.

“Following the detention of the vessel by Australian Maritime Safety Authority at ITF urging, five crew will be repatriated from Melbourne to the Philippines, including the captain and a number of engineers. The ship is not permitted to leave port until the company gets these tired and fatigued seafarers home and replaced by fresh crew.” said Purcell.

Purcell said that the just-in-time nature of importing new vehicles means the shipping company would be losing upwards of USD $100,000 per day as the vessel laid idle in the waters surrounding Melbourne. The MV Metis Leader was previously due to leave the Port of Melbourne at 3pm AEST on Wednesday, Purcell said. At Thursday evening the ship was stuck in Melbourne, at likely significant cost to the company.

“We believe the intention of the Japanese owners of the ship, NYK, was to slip through Melbourne undetected and sail to Jakarta with yet another promise to the crew that they would be returned home to their families at the next port.”

Purcell said the crew had been told previously that they would be repatriated to their home countries after their many months on board, as the Metis Leader passed through several countries that allow the changeover of seafarers. The Metis Leader had passed through Singapore, for example, ‘five or six times’, he said.

ITF Australia Coordinator Dean Summers said the case of the MV Metis Leader was a ‘wakeup call’ for the international shipping industry as the crew change crisis continued into its eighth month.

“Today’s lesson is very clear: if you have over-contract seafarers – if you have crew who have done their time and are no longer willing or safe to operate your vessel – the ITF, our affiliates, and the Australian authorities will arrest and detain your ship until you right these wrongs, no matter the cost to you or your cargo owner.”

Summers continued, “Crew change is possible in ports right across the world. We have been living with Covid-19 for eight months now, and so there is no excuse for delaying or deferring crew change. Repatriating crew and replacing them with a fresh team is the responsibility of employers and ship owners – and we will act to see that responsibility honoured for every single seafarer.”

“Our message to ship owners, manning agents, charterers and the companies which rely on ships to transport their goods, is: if you don’t ensure your crew is changed, we will work to see your ships are stopped and the tired workers operating them freed from the shackles of forced labour.”

“Ensure your supply chains are free from exploitation this Christmas: or we will,” said Summers.