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Issue #1618      November 13, 2013

How much is a wharfie’s life worth?

Wharfies are 14 times more likely to die on the job than the average Australian worker. The waterfront has seen massive productivity improvements over the last two decades and this intensification of productivity (and exploitation) has seen risks associated with working on the waterfront escalate.

Campaigning for your life

The Maritime Union of Australia’s (MUA) campaign arose out of the spate of waterfront deaths, particularly in 2010 but there have been other fatalities subsequently and prior to that. The deaths have occurred in terminals and in general stevedoring facilities across a range of different companies. The employers have used every dirty trick in the book to ensure profits come before safety.

The MUA has pulled no punches either and has correctly and admirably utilised a broad range of campaign methods including industrial action, online campaigning, demonstrations and occupations.

That action has been met with the full force of the bosses’ laws but the union has persisted, acting on the basis that zero tolerance to workplace deaths can be the only position that a union can take. We support that view.

The union has effectively engaged the workforce and has made this a priority issue for rank and file workers. – after all, what can be more important than coming home alive. The links between the employers and the corporate media have been laid bare for all to see in this process. While the national safety regulator, Safe Work Australia (SWA), has on at least three occasions sought to adopt the National Stevedoring Code of Practice (NSCOP), each time the employers demonstrate and utilise their class links to undermine and thwart it.

Despicable greed and negligence

A couple of companies have played a particularly dirty role in this process. Qube, headed by the infamous Chris Corrigan, and global network terminal operator Dubai Ports World have gone to great lengths to do everything in their power to ensure that pesky issues like safety do not impede profits. On one occasion as NSCOP was to be adopted, and the very day after Newcastle wharfie Greg Fitzgibbon was killed on the job in September 2012, the employers joined with the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (ACCI) to bomb the Code.

On another occasion the employers called on the Australian Financial Review (AFR) to write a scurrilous and factually incorrect article saying NSCOP would have significant cost effects. The AFR did not check their facts but dutifully, as a good capitalist newspaper does, ran the bosses line. The AFR article sparked the Office of Best Practice Regulation (OBPR) to become involved and demand that the Code be costed, over-ruling the position of Safe Work Australia who advocated adopting the code.

ALP fails wharfies

To make matters worse, but unfortunately not that surprisingly, all of this occurred with an incumbent Labor government. The ALP played lip service to NSCOP but when the chips were down once again failed workers, allowing corporate profits to outweigh the lives and safety of workers.

Some may argue that this fact may be due to the delicate balance of power the former Gillard government had to deal with in a hung parliament but throughout the whole period of the Gillard and Rudd Governments, while the NSCOP debate was running hot, the ALP governments made no executive intervention to demand that the lives of workers were the foremost issue not the greed and skulduggery of the stevedoring bosses.

What do the employers fear?

The cost arguments by employers cannot be justified. In the hierarchy of law there is legislation, acts of parliament such as the Workplace Health and Safety Act. Then below that there is regulation, usually accompanying legislation and giving details of application. Then beneath that there are codes of practice and then there is guidance material.

Codes of practice inform how to apply legislation and regulation; they do not create new legal requirements. They inform how to apply existing legislation and regulation, particularly around specific matters and areas not specifically identified in those existing laws.

There can consequently be no cost burden arising from a code of practice if the employer is adhering to the law. That is a questionable area on the waterfront where workers can identify daily breaches of the various safety acts and regulations and even breaches of the company’s own policies on safety.

The cost argument around NSCOP is a myth. What employers fear is the consequential organisation of workers around safety issues that the NSCOP campaign brings about. The bosses fear workers’ organisation. They act consistently to undermine and erode it and their opposition to NSCOP is based upon this fear.

The Liberal/National dilemma

NSCOP is currently in the process of undergoing the regulation impact statement (RIS) to determine whether it will cost the employers. The bottom line question is “what is the cost of saving a workers life?” The tenuous grounds that are the basis of costing NSCOP will be tested to see whether political and profit-based expediency overrules common decency.

The obligations for employers are a class based assessment, based on their interests and their capacity to increase and maintain profits. For workers it means whether we come home alive.

After the RIS the code will have to be signed off by none other than the union hating (MUA in particular) Eric Abetz. The battle looks set to continue. This is a classic example of the bankruptcy of capitalism and a system that lauds profit above all else, while the worker continues to fight to survive.

Workers’ lives before profits and greed.

CPA Maritime Branch
maritime@cpa.org.au
Sign the MUA submission in support of NSCOP here:
nscop4life.org.au   

Next article – Obituary – Brian Manning – A life given to the struggle

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