Community Scoop

Ports Disputes: A Retrospective

Article – The Scoop Team

Earlier this year Scoop published an article on the Auckland Port dispute. The Port of Tauranga took exception to the article and it was removed after legal action was threatened. After discussions with the author, the article with amendments is republished …Earlier this year Scoop published an article on the Auckland Port dispute. The Port of Tauranga took exception to the article and it was removed after legal action was threatened. After discussions with the author, the article with amendments is republished below, as is a statement from the Port of Tauranga written in response to the original article. Both pieces were written prior to events this week in the Port of Auckland dispute. By the Scoop Team

Fighting to Save Their Livelihood: The Ports of Auckland Dispute This article was originally published in the Summer School edition of Craccum: the University of Auckland’s student magazine.

By Cameron Walker

Over the past three months the industrial dispute at the Ports of Auckland has received a lot of media attention. The dispute began when the collective employment agreement between the Port’s management and the majority of its workforce expired in September. A collective agreement is created when the workers at a firm form themselves into a union so they can all negotiate one employment contract with the employer that covers everyone, rather than an individual contract for every worker. The Ports of Auckland and the Maritime Union, which represents seafarers and port workers in New Zealand, failed to come to an agreement on a new collective contract after the company demanded conditions that greatly reduced employment security and guaranteed hours of work.

Under the recently expired collective agreement fulltime employees were guaranteed 40 hours of work per week. The agreement allowed for 25% of the Port’s employees to be casuals. They could be called into work on a shift by shift basis when work was available but they had to be given shifts of at least 8 hours at a time.

The Ports of Auckland management are now demanding that the port workers sign an agreement that does not guarantee any shifts, hours or days off. This has greatly upset the workers. Under such a system workers will be unsure each week if they will be able to get enough work to make a living. As work happens at the Port 24/7 it would be very difficult to plan work at another job to make up the difference or maintain a family life.

The management also wants to be able to give any worker any task at the Port, at a moment’s notice. For example, a worker who usually packs containers and has little experience driving a crane could suddenly be told to drive a crane. This is very concerning because a number of jobs at the Port are very dangerous and require skilled training and experience to be done safely. If a crane or straddle carrier driver makes a false move stacking a large number of containers it can result in death or serious injury.

The Port management’s refusal to budge on these demands is what led to the workers conducting six strikes in recent months. At the time of writing the workers are in the midst of a three week strike. The company also locked out the workers for two 24 hour stretches at the start of December. A lockout is when the company refuses to allow workers to come to work, in an attempt to weaken a union. Under New Zealand employment law strikes and lockouts can only be conducted when a contract is being negotiated or if there are urgent health and safety issues at the workplace. Some business leaders, right wing political activists and politicians have seen the dispute as a good way of pushing a wider agenda. Christine Fletcher and George Wood, from the National/Act aligned block of Auckland City councillors Citizens and Ratepayers, have used the dispute to claim the Port would be more efficient if it was partially privatised. The National Party as a whole has refused to comment on the dispute but this has not stopped some of its MPs and activists using the dispute to call for the curtailment of unions’ rights to negotiate better pay and conditions for their members. National MP for Botany, Jami Lee Ross, even wrote a commentary for the news website Scoop suggesting that unions should not receive a special place in NZ employment legislation.

A number of commentators in the media, such as former National Party MP and Food and Grocery Council CEO Katherine Rich and prominent blogger David Farrar have uncritically repeated claims by the Ports of Auckland CEO Tony Gibson that the average port worker is paid $91,000 a year. No detailed figures have been released to back this claim. In contrast the Maritime Union has released a fact sheet showing how much their members at the Ports of Auckland are paid. A Ports of Auckland worker is guaranteed $1090.40 for a 40 hour week, that is $56,700 per year. The union says earning $91,000 a year would be theoretically possible if one worked 1377 hours on top of a normal working year. This would be the equivalent of an extra 34 full working weeks on top of a full year of work. Workers at the Port are not paid penal rates for working overtime. Working these sorts of hours would mean almost never having a day off. This imaginary $91,000 figure also doesn’t take into account that overtime is not always offered because there are not always extra ships visiting the Port that need loading and unloading.

The dispute appears to be far from over. On January 10th Ports’ CEO Tony Gibson told the NZ Herald that he was “absolutely” prepared to sack the entire unionised workforce and replace them with casuals.

Over the past 21 years NZ employment law has greatly reduced the ability of workers to organise unions in their workplace. In many industries real wages have declined and decent working conditions have been eroded by casualisation. The Maritime Union has always been a union that is not only a strong voice for their members but also a passionate advocate on wider issues of creating a fair society.

If the Ports of Auckland workers are able to successfully beat the Port Management’s attempt to wreck their livelihoods it will make managers in other industries think twice before engaging in similar behaviour. It will be a victory for those who want a fair society in New Zealand and a defeat for those who have pushed for a greater gap between rich and poor by wrecking the pay and conditions of the New Zealand workforce over the past two decades.

Article update: Ports of Tauranga controversy When this article was originally published I included a passage about the Ports of Tauranga. Since the start of the Auckland dispute many business commentators have commented favourably on the Ports of Tauranga’s labour relations model and claim that the Ports of Auckland should adopt a similar model if it wants to be more competitive. The Ports of Tauranga took exception to several sentences in my article and had their lawyers contact Scoop demanding it be retracted, claiming it included statements ‘clearly of a defamatory nature’.

In the article I referred to the Ports of Tauranga as having a casual deunionised workforce. In their letter to Scoop the Port’s lawyers wrote that the ‘Port of Tauranga employs approximately 160 permanent employees and 30 casual employees’. According to the letter 70-80% of these staff are union members. The letter goes on to say that the Port uses ‘some contractors to provide complimentary and essential services to the Port of Tauranga’.

A fact sheet available on the Port’s website, entitled Port Operational Information shows that stevedoring and marshalling services at the Port (the jobs that the term ‘wharfie’ describes) are not provided by employees of the Port of Tauranga but rather by private companies contracted by the importers, exporters and shipping companies who use the Port. These workers are not included in the figure of 160 permanent and 30 casual employees.

The lawyer’s letter says that their ‘client is aware contractors working at the port mainly employ unionised staff’. However, the Maritime Union says that two of these contracting companies have set up their own company unions to ensure workers do not join the Maritime Union.

Even though the stevedores work on site at the Port of Tauranga the letter said that the contracting companies ‘have their own labour relationships with their own employees which has nothing to do with the Port of Tauranga’.

The Port also took issue with my article’s reference to the deaths of three workers on site during the past two years, arguing that this did not reflect negatively on the Port because the deaths ‘have not been attributed to anything within the control or power of the Port’. One of the deaths was an employee of a shipping line; another was a worker hired by a stevedoring contractor and the third was of a construction contractor.

After stevedore, Brian Kevin Shannon was run over by a forklift; two contracting companies were fined $15,000 and $40,000 respectively after pleading guilty to a charge of failing to take all practicable steps to ensure Mr Shannon was not harmed or exposed to risk of harm in his workplace ($55,000 fine for death at Port of Tauranga, Bay of Plenty Times, June 8th 2011 )

Recently there have been media reports that some workers hired by contractors at the Port of Tauranga are scared they will be blacklisted if they report injuries or accidents. For example:

Letter/Statement From the Port Of Tauranga We ask that you publish the following information in response to the article published by Scoop News on its website, entitled Fighting to Save Their Livelihood: Ports of Auckland : An article published in Scoop News recently entitled Fighting to Save Their Livelihood: Ports of Auckland described the labour environment at Port of Tauranga in response to the comparisons that had been made recently over labour productivity at both ports. This description in the article was entirely inaccurate.

The article incorrectly stated that Port of Tauranga has a completely casual de-unionised workforce. This is wrong. The Port of Tauranga employs approximately 160 permanent employees and 30 casual employees. Of those staff, between 70-80% are union members. This information is not difficult to access. It is in the Port’s 2011 Annual Report. The Port does engage some contractors to provide complimentary and essential services to the Port of Tauranga. Most contractors who work on the port are engaged by shipping companies, importers and exporters.

Those contractors have their own labour relationships with their own employees, which has nothing to do with Port of Tauranga. We are aware, however, that contractors working on the port mainly employ unionised staff.

The article referred to there being “unsavoury aspects of the Port’s supposed economic miracle”. The Port considers the reference to “unsavoury aspects” was designed to undermine Port of Tauranga’s relations with its staff and clients. It suggested that the Port engages in conduct of an unacceptable nature to achieve economic success at the expense of its employees. Port of Tauranga is an employer of choice in the Bay of Plenty region, with staff turnover averaging 3% over the last 10 years, average staff service 15 years and 50 of its staff with more than 20 years service.

The article stated there are sloppy health and safety standards at the port. In fact, the Port of Tauranga is consistently one of the best performers in relation to safety of all the ports in New Zealand as recognised in publicly available ACC data. The port s safety record is one of the best of all New Zealand ports and is less than half of the ACC s all port average. We understand that the total number of lost time injuries at the Port of Tauranga over the financial year ending 31 March 2011 was less than 20% of Port of Auckland s.

The article said there have been three deaths from industrial actions in the past two years at the Port of Tauranga, associating those tragic occasions with the Port s work practices.

This statement is false. Unfortunately there have been three deaths in the past two years. One was an employee of a stevedoring company; one was an overseas seafarer working on a ship; and the third death was a roading construction contractor. These deaths have not been attributed to anything within the control or power of the Port and in all instances were not subject to the pressures that the author of the article suggests.

Port of Tauranga considers the false statements were designed to reflect adversely on the Port and could have affected its business and trading reputation. The statements were viewed by the Port as being of a defamatory nature and part of a continuing campaign of misinformation over the Ports of Auckland dispute.

The Article has been removed from the website by Scoop.


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