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Another Sea Disaster

The MV Rena ran aground on Astrolabe Reef off Tauranga in the Bay of Plenty, North Island, New Zealand on 5 October last year, spilling fuel oil and containers into the sea. The Rena is a Liberian-flagged, Greek-owned Flag of Convenience (FOC) vessel. The crew consisted of 23 Filipinos.

Not surprisingly, the grounding of the Rena, and subsequent oil spill, has caused outrage and concern, and has been reported worldwide. The ship disintegrates on the Reef. According to Joe Fleetwood, general secretary of the Maritime Union of New Zealand, writing in The Maritimes (Issue 36, Summer 2011/12), many in New Zealand are confused as to how the disaster happened, and who was responsible. People have a right to know, he said.

Flag of Convenience
The Maritime Union blames the New Zealand government and authorities as much as individual crew members. The authorities have created a situation where FOC shipping has been encouraged. Their “open coast” policy has meant that “unacceptable practices have become the norm in New Zealand waters”.

Many in New Zealand were shocked to discover that the FOC system operates on the New Zealand coast. They should not have been. In many of these FOC states such as Liberia, there are few regulations. Says Joe Fleetwood: “This is deregulation operating in a globalized market, with no oversight, no responsibility and no morality.” Quite. He continues:

“Flag of Convenience ships are notorious for their exploitation of crews, and safety risks. They endanger our environment and port security, and are a threat to the future of New Zealand maritime industry… It is a cheap way of doing things. But as we all know, doing things on the cheap has a funny way of ending up being more expensive in the long run.”

Legacy of Neglect
Was the Rena faulty? Apparently, prior to its arrival in New Zealand, it had been hauled up in China and Australia for numerous issues and multiple problems.

Was a full inspection by Maritime New Zealand made given numerous documented failings? According to the union, a Maritime New Zealand “inspection” consisted of asking the Master of the Rena if the previous problems had been fixed. Presumably, he said they had. So that was OK then! Following the disaster, the Master was arrested. He was blamed two weeks after the grounding and spillage; a convenient scapegoat.

According to The Maritime, a TV3 News investigation noted that the government was repeatedly warned that New Zealand wasn’t prepared sufficiently for such an oil spill. An Official Information Act indicated that the New Zealand government had considered whether a specialist oil response vessel was needed. But it decided against. It had, it said, such vessels as “The Awanvia”, with suitable equipment which it could seek for assistance. In the event, however, it was almost five days before it arrived on site and began pumping fuel off the Rena.

Union Criticism
Not surprisingly, the New Zealand Maritime Union is highly critical. General Secretary, Joe Fleetwood complains that workers are under threat because of lack of proper regulations and enforcement in the industry. Workers are expendable. Both local and overseas workers are being harmed in the workplace because of slack regulations. And, it is worse on FOC vessels.

Says the union:

“The incidents on Flag of Convenience vessels, including foreign charter vessels in the New Zealand fishing industry, make for a long and grim list. Sinkings, drownings, asphyxiations, severe injuries, physical attacks, underpayment, pollution and overfishing, abuse and exploitation are all documented throughout the maritime industry. For years the problem has been out of sight and out of mind.”

And not just in New Zealand, I would add. Indeed, complacent politicians come and go, and “profits kept flowing to the shipping corporations”. Fleetwood observes that in the current environment, profit comes first. “Unless we have strong unions on the job to defend health and safety, and legislation that is backed by some teeth, then we will see more and more preventable deaths and injuries.” Too true. But, unfortunately, legislation and reform measures, even if acted upon, will not solve the problems. Only the abolition of the cause – capitalism and the profit motive system – will do that.  This is what the World Socialist Party of New Zealand, and socialists elsewhere, propose and for which they are organised.