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Issue #1697      August 12, 2015

Port workers take on a stacked system

Workers ordered back to work after half their workmates are sacked

“The company … will expect that the Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) will facilitate the orderly return to work and the continuation of work at terminals in Sydney and Brisbane.”

Hutchison Ports Australia’s workers gather at Port Botany, Sydney, after being sacked by email.

This arrogance, from the world’s largest multinational port operator, Hong Kong based, but registered in the Virgin Islands tax haven, gives an insight into the forces the port workers and their union, the Maritime Union of Australia, are taking on in their courageous fight to protect jobs and conditions in the maritime industry.

Hutchison Ports Australia (HPA), a subsidiary of multinational Hutchison Ports Holdings, which in turn is a subsidiary of Hutchison Whampoa Ltd, expressed the above expectation of the MUA after the Fair Work Commission issued an interim order last Friday evening directing HPA employees to cease all forms of industrial action.

The industrial action the Fair Work Commission is ordering to be stopped, is that being taken by the remaining 127 Hutchison workers in Sydney and Brisbane, who still have jobs, to refuse to return to work until their 97 workmates are reinstated and the company agrees to meaningful negotiations with the MUA on a process for the automation of port work.

The company’s idea of handling automation was to send an email in the middle of the night to the 97 workers the company selected for sackings, telling them not to bother to show up for work next day – not even to clear out their lockers of their belongings. These belongings – and a cheque for a final week’s pay would be “in the mail” according to Hutchison.

Hutchison enforced these sackings by installing hired security guards at its port facility gates, to block workers from entering, or trucks from delivering their containers.

In the world that Hutchison – and the Fair Work Commission live in – workers are mere resources to employ and discard as needed. The idea that workers who see half their workmates disappear in the middle of the night should merely continue to work as directed, rather than respond to their boss’s outrageous and criminal behaviour, seems totally foreign to the likes of the Commission and the company.

This outrageous action by Hutchison is one it has taken by stealth and through deception and in violation of the letter and spirit of current enterprise agreement it has with the union.

It has been undertaken in collaboration with the other port operators who all see automation as a way to finally rid Australian ports of a proud, unionised workforce and to replace it with casualised, non-union labour.

Hutchison’s indecent move follows quickly on the heels of the MUA taking action over the previous few days to draw attention to the existence within HPA of a secret “Phoenix Rising” strategy, now being rolled out, to automate the ports, without consultation with the workforce and targeting union delegates and activists in the course of reducing total numbers of workers on the ports.

This is despite a current enterprise agreement with the MUA that requires the employer to discuss such plans with the union to avert and mitigate job losses.

Who is taking ‘secondary’ action and breaking enterprise agreements?

The Fair Work Commission has used the secondary boycott provisions in the Fair Work Act to order back to work the port workers who are picketing outside their work places and refusing to return to work until their almost 100 sacked workmates are reinstated.

However, the Fair Work Commission leaves alone the actions of the employer who is not standing by the terms of the enterprise bargaining agreement it has with the MUA. That agreement requires discussion and negotiation on matters that affect the employment and conditions of the workforce during the term of the agreement, which automation does in a most fundamental way.

Nor does it address the collusion among the port operators to ensure Hutchison’s plan can be made to work with maximum impact to break and eliminate the unionised port workforce, something from which they will all benefit.

While Hutchison has been crying poor and claims it has been unable to secure market share with “leading shipping lines already committed to the existing operators under long-term contracts”, this is basically a lie for public consumption, but which the union and workers see though.

MUA assistant national secretary Warren Smith succinctly stated this at a meeting outside the Port Botany terminal the Monday before the sackings, when he declared that, “Hutchison ought to know the MUA is not naïve to its tactics and we are gearing up to fight for the long-haul.”

“Manipulating contracts and colluding with the other port operators in order to manufacture redundancies is just not acceptable. This is a plot to remove union delegates and activists and bring in a disposable, casual, pliable workforce when the contracts mysteriously reappear,” he declared, pointing out that Hutchison was using textbook union busting tactics.

Hutchison has not even been trying to get new contracts and has been off-loading its current contracts to its “competition”’, Patrick and DP World. The company wants to rid itself of much of its workforce so it is free to implement new and higher levels of automation. This project should be completed by the time its off-loaded contracts’ periods expire, towards the end of 2016, by which time Hutchison should have its fully automated terminal up and running and the contracts shall “mysteriously reappear” back with Hutchison.

Port workers’ widespread support

The striking workers and the community picket outside Port Botany and Brisbane Hutchison port facilities are attracting widespread support from members of the community, many of whom have received support from the MUA in their own struggles in the past, as well as other port workers and unions within Australia and internationally.

The pickets outside Hutchison’s Brisbane and Port Botany docks will continue. Supporters are encouraged to continue to build this support in solidarity with the sacked workers and to keep contact through the MUA website (www.mua.org.au)

Next article – Come and support sacked wharfies

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