Conditions under attack at Shell Geelong

March 4, 1991

By David Mizon

MELBOURNE — Conditions for workers at Shell's Geelong plant are to worsen seriously under proposals put forward late in February by the plant Award Restructuring Steering Committee. The steering committee was made up of representation from all unions on site and an equal number of management representatives.

The committee's starting point was a "focus statement" and a design guideline document issued by management. Both shackled refinery workers to the business objectives of Shell while making the correct noises about job satisfaction, career paths and job security.

The proposals of the steering committee appear in a 110-page document that presents Shell's problems as the problems of workers at the refinery. This neat trick is performed by establishing a list of "stakeholders" in the profitability of the refinery, which just happens to include the workers. The document then proceeds to off-load the task of reorganising the plant onto the shoulders of the workers.

The reorganisation entails a change from the current plant-by-plant coverage by operators to a production area concept. This idea lumps plants, sometimes quite arbitrarily, into work stations controlled by one panel operator.

The amalgamation brings together the responsibilities for controlling a number of different plants into one job; under the current system, this responsibility is shared amongst a number of operators.

The cost of redesign will be 37 operating positions and the involvement of head operators in the budgeting of shift operations and maintenance activities. The committee also recommended that operators undertake lab testing and perform direct maintenance tasks.

To push this latter point home, management has issued each operator with a set of tools (it had been agreed under the second tier negotiations in 1988 that operators would carry a set of four spanners).

For the implementation of the above changes, the company has offered a rise of $50. However, it is willing to negotiate a further increase of $40 if workers at the refinery are willing to delete the award shift change penalties; negotiate 12-hour shifts; forgo the free shift bus; and incorporate all allowances and three hours per week overtime into an annualised salary (in effect reducing many award provisions).

Under normal conditions, such demands by the bosses would be rejected outright, but the petrochemical industry has been bombarded for some time with the "success" of the ICI Botany agreement obtained from the FIA.

The ICI agreement returned workers to a 46-hour week (from 38) by building into wages an eight-hour overtime payment. This overtime is considered mandatory by management because it has already been purchased. At the same time, conditions in the award have been gutted by eroding payments for various allowances, shift penalties and weekend loading. Another aspect of this agreement is the formation of multiskilled teams that supposedly enhance "flexibility" and reduce demarcation disputes. In reality, these teams set the stage for more job cuts further down the track. These developments pose a serious threat not only to jobs in the industry but also to long-term safety. Work can potentially be off-loaded onto less trained people and workloads increased.

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