Monday, May 16, 2005
A "SLAVE ship" employing cheap Chinese and Russian workers is operating off South Australian waters, in the world's first floating abalone harvesting farm. The Rann Government, which issued the permit allowing the farm to operate on the ship Destiny Queen, is now working to close loopholes it believes allows the venture to "unfairly" compete with land-based Australian abalone farmers. Transport Minister Patrick Conlon said the ship's owners also avoided paying tax on its export sales, estimated at $6million a year. The Maritime Union of Australia dubbed the Destiny Queen a "slave ship" because it had sourced "the cheapest possible labour it can exploit" and based them in waters outside immigration jurisdiction. Hong Kong-based shareholders in the Destiny Abalone Group reflagged the Destiny Queen from Australia to Hong Kong and sacked all but four of the 30 Australians on board, replacing them with foreign crew late last year. The change coincided with the Destiny Queen's return to South Australia after a four-month, $6million expansion and refit in China. It is now based 30 nautical miles offshore in the Spencer Gulf, and must move three miles every two weeks. The group's chief executive Lesley Wahlqvist refused to outline what the company paid the Russian and Chinese workers but said they did not require a visa to work in Australia because they did not come ashore. The ship also skirted federal laws requiring permits for foreign-flagged and crewed vessels sailing in Australian waters because it was anchored in South Australia and did not travel from port to port. "It's none of your business or anybody else's damned business," Ms Wahlqvist said. "To be blunt, there's a shitfight going on with the MUA. We meet all government regulations that apply to ships' crew; it's as simple as that." Chinese and eastern European crew are among the lowest paid in the world, earning as little as $US400 ($525) a month or as much as $US1550 if they are subject to international labour agreements. The Destiny Queen does not have such an agreement registered, according to a European Commission-operated international database of ship registries, Equasis. The MUA's Jamie Newlyn said the sacked Australian seafarers had earned up to $60,000 a year, while the abalone harvesters on board earned $35,000. Mr Conlon said he was very concerned that the Destiny Queen had "clearly found loopholes" and cabinet would need to consider changing laws. He said state government officials planned to board the ship "within weeks" to check compliance. "This is not a union issue," Mr Conlon said. "They are growing abalone in competition with Australian producers without being subject to laws and regulations ... and because they are not making any revenue in Australia, they are not subject to tax laws." Ms Wahlqvist confirmed all abalone grown in giant holding tanks on the Destiny Queen were exported direct to Hong Kong, selling for between $35 and $40 a kilogram. She said the Destiny Abalone Group chartered the ship from a Hong-Kong based owner.
A smaller boat alongside the 'Destiny Queen'