HK-flagged ship called a floating sweatshop
Raymond Ma and Nick Squires in Sydney
Chinese crew earning as little as US$300 a month, union claims
Marine officials are investigating a Hong Kong-registered ship operating off the coast of Australia which has been dubbed a 'slave ship' for employing cheap immigrant Chinese labour.
The inquiry was launched after a Chinese sailor aboard the Destiny Queen, owned by Hong Kong-based Destiny Shipping, had to be evacuated by helicopter after suffering injuries to his face.
The ship's owners have hit back against 'bigoted and biased attacks' by Australian unions that it was illegally exploiting cheap Chinese labour in Australia to grow abalone on the ship to sell directly back to Hong Kong for a fat profit.
The 120-metre, 65-tonne ship has been under close scrutiny by Australian unions, who are furious that all but four of the vessel's Australian crew were dismissed last September and replaced with much cheaper Chinese sailors and Ukrainian officers and engineers.
Suspicions have increased because the ship's owners have refused to publicly say how much its sailors are being paid, and it is believed that some of the Chinese crew are earning as little as US$300 a month.
The ship operates in the Spencer Gulf off the coast of South Australia. Union attempts to inspect it, amid fears cheap Chinese labour is being used to undercut Australian workers, are being resisted.
'It's a floating sweatshop,' said Jamie Newlyn, of the Maritime Union of Australia. 'We have grave concerns about the welfare of the crew. It's a very dodgy outfit.'
Destiny Shipping is controlled through a web of shell companies by executives of South-Australian Destiny Abalone Group, including the latter company's chief executive officer, Lesley Wahlqvist. Its principal executives are mainly based in Australia, but it has an office in Hong Kong.
The ship cultivates abalone in its hold and exports its entire cargo to Hong Kong, where they sell for between A$35 ($210) and A$40 a kilogram.
Polly Kwok Wing-wah, a Hong Kong-based director of the firm, said: 'The attack has taken the form of false submissions to local media, lies, and untrue allegations to union-biased government ministers and intimidation of company employees.'
All Chinese and Ukrainian crew on the ship had full Australian work visas and that working conditions and wages were in compliance with Australian regulations, she said.
A Marine Department spokesman said the Destiny Queen complied with requirements listed by the International Maritime Organisation and the International Labour Organisation (ILO), which are mandatory for ships registered in Hong Kong. Worker wages filed by the firm were 'well in excess' of the ILO minimum of US$500 a month, it said.