Negotiations over a new enterprise agreement at stevedoring company DP World have turned bitter.
In response to an authorised 24-hour stoppage on January 13 and other work bans imposed by the workforce after 15 months of fruitless negotiations, the company has cancelled approved leave, including for those workers already taking time off in school holidays.
Furthermore, in Sydney, it is refusing to back-pay those workers who stopped work during the most intense periods of smoke haze, along with wharfies from the two other companies — Patrick Corporations and Hutchison Ports.
The escalation of this dispute poses some important questions for workers’ rights beyond the waterfront.
First, it demonstrates just how much Australian labour law is stacked in favour of employers and against workers. Australia has the greatest restriction on workers’ right to strike, in breach of International Labour Organisation standards, in the OECD.
To take industrial action a union must ballot its members and have it approved by Fair Work Australia, giving the employer plenty of time to prepare. Employers, by contrast, have an almost free hand to stop their business and stand workers down in a lock-out.
Secondly, there is the question of whether it is even legal under law, as bad as it is, for an employer to withhold accrued leave entitlements during enterprise agreement negotiations.
Finally, what rights do workers have to stop work when outdoor air pollution is hazardous?
The Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) has indicated that it will be responding to DP World’s aggressive actions by ramping up its industrial action.
MUA assistant national secretary Warren Smith told the Fairfax press on January 20: “Workers will be responding to this latest attack with a fresh round of industrial action, including strikes, rolling stoppages during each shift and the imposition of a range of work bans”.
In Fremantle, DP World refused union officials access to the site which prompted workers to leave the job to hold a meeting in the car park. Commenting on Facebook, WA state secretary Christy Cain said: “They don’t let us in, then we meet outside!
“Looking forward to this new way of organising … This is our port, yes Fremantle! And we will always meet with our members, regardless of the threats and intimidation. Threatened again today with security, and then coppers coming down, because I am meeting with my members in the car-park. Obviously we met, and always will.”
A particular point of contention in negotiations has been the company’s demand to be able to change the rosters of workers at short notice. Already a significant portion of the workforce is “irregularly engaged”, meaning they only find out when and if they are working the next day. Other workers are on a fixed rotating roster.
The union’s ambition is to increase the pool of workers on a fixed roster, whereas the company is seeking to erode the roster. Other points of disagreement include the outsourcing of cargo care work, job security in the face of automation, the company’s demand to make 200 permanent employees in Sydney and Melbourne redundant and parental and domestic violence leave entitlements.
Based in Dubai, DP World is the world’s fourth largest and Australia’s largest port terminal operator.
The company has operated for more than 20 years with profit margins of up to 50%. It makes a global profit of $1.29 billion, yet it has structured its business in such a way as to pay no tax in Australia. With no end to the dispute in site, the MUA has been rallying support from other transport unions around the world.