Divers demand collective agreement

Issue 

Fourteen divers at the Sydney desalination plant being built at Port Botany went on strike this week over safety concerns and demanding a union collective agreement walking off the job on Monday March 3. They are employed by Construction Diving Services (whose parent company is Dempsey Industries).

The divers working at the NSW State Government project walked off the job after the on-site Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) delegate was sacked for raising safety issues. They are also seeking to negotiate a union collective agreement. The divers are currently covered by a non-union collective agreement.

Serious occupational health and safety breaches have been reported at the site, including dangerous loads being suspended over working divers; unpredictable winch wires being on deck in the divers' working area; the absence of a safety committee, a workplace emergency plan or an evacuation procedure; a lack of a recovery mechanism for unconscious divers and welders and electricians working in heavy rain.

Both divers and company representatives gave evidence before an Australian Industrial Relations Commission hearing on March 6. The Australian Building and Construction Commission also intervened on behalf of the employer in the AIRC.

Despite the breaches of safety on the site, the AIRC ordered the workers to return to work on March 7.

John Holland, the project contractor has filed for damages in the Federal Court against the MUA, MUA Sydney branch secretary Warren Smith and the fourteen striking workers. The company is using the courts to attack the rights of workers to representation by the union, and attempting to make the divers accept the unsafe conditions at work unquestioningly. It is also taking legal action against the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union on site, using provisions of the federal Comcare legislation to refuse union access to the site on health and safety issues.

On March 7, NSW Workcover inspected the site and issued the employer with several notices for breaches of occupational health and safety, demonstrating the legitimacy of the divers' concerns.

On-shore divers are grossly underpaid for the dangerous work they do. Sydney Branch MUA Assistant Secretary Paul McAleer told Green Left Weekly that the MUA were "considering a number of activities to protest against Dempsey Industries. We will be organising activities at Dempsey's sites around the country."

This dispute highlights the need for the Rudd government to guarantee workers right to join a union, to negotiate a union collective agreement and for that union to have access to workers on the job.

A community assembly continues to be maintained at the site, at the Molineux Point end of Friendship Road, Port Botany. Supporters of workers' rights and safety are particularly encouraged to come to a demonstration that will be held there at 2.30pm on Wednesday 12 March to protest the continuing denial of workers' rights and safety at the desalination plant. A simultaneous protest will be held at the Mackay headquarters of Dempsey Industries calling for an end to the companies attacks on its workers rights.