Human Rights at Sea Opinion Piece

Two years on and despite extensive and persistent lobbying, the Australian Government is fundamentally failing seafarers and their families in providing a sustainable funding mechanism for onshore welfare facilities embedded in and protected by primary legislation.

For a State that critically relies on sea trade, conflicting self-interests are increasingly responsible for the ongoing fiasco, which is rapidly becoming embarrassing in comparison to providing a solution.

Breach and Failures

In 2022, Human Rights at Sea published a legal opinion by a senior shipping Counsel concerning the funding of seafarer welfare facilities in Australia. 
It observed that Australia might eventually breach its welfare obligations under the Maritime Labour Convention 2006 (MLC) if it does not take reasonable steps to secure sufficient long-term funding for shore-based welfare facilities. 

That is happening now.

Referring to 2020 data from the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA), Australia received more than 26,000 ship visits from more than 6000 vessels despite restrictions on global shipping movements that year. HRAS assessed that any change to Australian legislation in favour of sustainable levy funding could affect circa 250,000 seafarers per annum across the 41 ports listed by Ports Australia. 

Even conservative estimates mean that should updated legislation be passed as suggested in the Counsel’s opinion, then significantly better welfare safeguards could be easily secured for an island nation from which 98% of goods come by sea.

Unfortunately, persistent advocacy from both HRAS and the Australian Seafarers Welfare Council (ASWC) since 2021 has so far failed to deliver the desired results. 

The Australian Labor Government’s prime opportunity to assure long-term seafarer welfare funding and sustainability with minimal legislative amendment is now being derailed and side-stepped with what appears to be the proverbial can-kicked-down-the-road approach.

How so? Through institutional paralysis of internal decision-making.

It could be mildly funny if this were not such a serious issue with lasting consequences for seafarers, their families, not to mention Australian citizens, as well as the Australian regional and international reputation.
Seafarers’ working lives, well-being, and the upholding of a fair and reasonable recuperating environment ashore pivots on this much needed but simple legislative development to ring-fence a small amount of existing maritime levy funds that are available now and filling federal coffers daily. 

It is not hard. The solution and legal pathway have already been proven regionally, and it can be achieved with a simple, committed focus and political will.

Legal Precedent

The legal precedent bravely set by the Labour New Zealand Government in July 2021 in amending and enacting primary legislation, the 1994 Maritime Transport Act, resulted in a unique state-level pathway to ensure seafarer welfare needs and associated costs can be sourced from the existing maritime levy funding stream. 

That said, the implementation process is not free from problems or competing welfare organisation interests. (More to follow on that).

Nonetheless, in doing so, coordinated advocacy efforts internal and external to New Zealand delivered a minor text update to primary legislation resulting in a historic change. 

It simply meant that ongoing outlays for seafarer centres, staff and associated costs would no longer be borne through fundraising, dedicated pro bono local community volunteering efforts, or the seemingly perpetual requirement to ‘shake the can’ at donors for much-needed dollars. 

Supporting Research and Proposals

In the current matter of lobbying for a legislative amendment to assure future sustainability, this matter required an all-hands-on-deck approach to establish the accurate facts, collate and articulate the positions of all welfare providers, draft the report to Government and deliver overwhelming reasoning that should NOT be ignored. 

On this basis, two fully substantiated stakeholder proposals were prepared and submitted to the Australian Government, one for emergency funding in August 2022 and the other for long-term funding in November 2022. 
Recently, Human Rights at Sea was put on notice that no emergency, short-term funding will be allocated, as this proposal is “no longer in scope”.

So what?

Welfare providers are being penalised due to Government inaction. 

After six months, one wonders what part of “emergency” was not understood. 

Welfare providers have again expressed their need for emergency funding as they are struggling to deliver their services to seafarers.

Expertly kicking-the-Can

Frustratingly, the long-term funding proposal is now being considered as part of the Government budget cycle for May 2024, i.e., FY 24-25.

In the interim, the applicable Department is looking to organise a high-level round table discussion and will invite port representatives, operators and ship owners, and welfare providers to explore different models. The timing of this is yet to be confirmed but is planned for “the near future.” 

Those engaged have been having “high-level discussions” with port representatives, operators, and ship owners at ASWC on this issue for the past two years. 

That is ASWC’s raison-d’etre. 

Meantime, Human Rights at Sea was told from the outset that once the need had been identified by welfare providers (which it has), then the Department would produce a governance model. Now, it appears that they are struggling to find basic solutions. 

The Reality

The levy funds are already there, but issues around quantifying how much is available and how the funds can be fairly allocated and distributed frustratingly remain matters in issue. 

Importantly, none of those operational level issues should prevent a first step of updating primary legislation to provide the legal requirement assuring long-term change. 

The remainder of the administrative detail should not be side-stepped, framed as complex, or considered too difficult to achieve. 

Every day that goes by is a day that there is a collective failure of those very seafarers that again, and not to put too fine a point on it, supply 98% of goods entering and leaving Australia.

Call to Action

Human Rights at Sea once again urges the Australian Government to reinforce its political will and mandated national legislative pathways to assure sustainable and long-term maritime welfare support in law through existing maritime levy structures. 

Strategically, state-level opportunity for both national and regional leadership in terms of a concerted focus on legislative surety for welfare needs through assured access to and use of existing maritime levy funding must not be ducked through lack of coordinated action or, worse, failure of political will. 

Time really is of the essence, with seafarers and their families suffering.

Australia. Do not be on the wrong side of history.

For more information on this issue visit, HRAS Maritime Levy Campaign

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