Ruby Princess and coronavirus: NSW government accused of 'hiding' ship and sick crew

The NSW state government is under pressure to transfer the Ruby Princess and its crew of more than 1000 - including 200 with symptoms of COVID-19 - from its Port Kembla berth to the Overseas Passenger Terminal at Circular Quay, closer to larger hospitals and medical resources.

Politicians and union representatives have criticised the decision by NSW Police to dock the ship "in a covert operation" overnight at a grain terminal facility in the Illawarra rather than in Sydney Harbour where the Overseas Passenger Terminal remains empty.

Dean Summers, national co-ordinator of the International Transport Workers' Federation, says the ship's estimated 200 ill crew should be moved closer to the best medical attention, describing the decision to dock the ship in the Illawarra as a politically-influenced one with the intention to effectively conceal the vessel.

"[The state government] doesn't need a political response, it doesn't need an industrial response it needs an emergency humanitarian response," Mr Summers said. "This a problem of the NSW government's own making. It could have only been a political decision to turn the ship away from Sydney and hide it in a grain terminal."

Ryan Park, the NSW Opposition health spokesman and local member for the Illawarra electorate of Keira, says sick crew members from the Ruby Princess could place an "enormous strain" on Wollongong Hospital and its intensive care unit.

"Why would you bring a toxic ship down to a regional port and potentially overrun our local hospital?" Mr Park said. "We want the crew on board to be treated properly so why would you take the ship away from where the majority of health and hospital services are in Sydney?"

Two crew members were taken to a Sydney hospital before the ship headed south.

Mr Summers says news of the treatment of North American crew aboard the Ruby Princess has angered their families overseas. There are at least 50 nationalities aboard the ship, including Filipinos, Indonesians and Indians.

Eleven passengers from the Ruby Princess have died from the effects of COVID-19 and the plight of the ship's lowly-paid crew members has put a spotlight on the international cruise industry.

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Cruise liners such as the Ruby Princess, whose home port is notionally Hamilton, the tiny capital of Bermuda, are registered in tax effective "flag of convenience" countries with labour regulations incompatible to countries such as Australia.

Filipinos tend to be the dominant nationality of crews aboard cruise ships with their earnings typically being remitted to their homeland as a means of supporting their families and communities. Such remittances greatly underpin The Philippines' economy with cruise ship crew members certain to be unemployed once they return home.

"If the remittances aren't received it doesn't just affect the immediate family but whole communities," Mr Summers said. "That money's not for second mortgages, it's about survival and to put food on the table and to educate children."

Philippines authorities are expecting one of the biggest repatriations of Filipino seafarers by the end of April, according to a report in the Manila Standard, with at least 15,000 crew members due to return on ships, including those aboard Royal Caribbean vessels that were turned away from Australian waters at the weekend.

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