Gillard, Barnett unite against Pluto workers


Federal Labor's workplace relations minister Julia Gillard and Western Australian Liberal Premier Colin Barnett joined forces last week, demanding striking Pluto project workers return to work.

The workers are on a Woodside liquid natural gas project near Karratha in North West Australia. They have allegedly been taking unprotected strike action since January 22.

They are protesting Woodside's proposal to remove workers' permanent accommodation The small units, known as "dongas" containing a single bed and en suite are where workers spend three weeks out of every four, with some workers having no other fixed address.

The new arrangements, known as "motel-ing", would mean workers pack up all their belongings and place them in plastic boxes every three weeks, before flying home and being assigned another room on return.

Workers say the changes would disrupt to their privacy, stability, and sense of community in the camps, as well as health and hygiene.

Woodside is only willing to store what can be placed in boxes, and will not guarantee the safety of larger recreational items such as bikes and fishing rods.

Companies supplying labour to the Woodside site are doing so under ongoing "non-union Greenfield agreements" left over from the previous government. Under such arrangements, a company could make an agreement with workers who had not yet been employed, without consultation with or agreement from the unions representing them.

Australian Manufacturing Workers' Union state secretary Steve McCartney told media: "This is nothing but a cost cutting exercise by Woodside and [employment contractor] Foster Wheeler Worley", who's "non union" project is behind on time and budget.

McCartney asked that Woodside seek to resolve the dispute through negotiation rather than court actions.

Barnett has inflamed the situation by telling workers they should "move on" and that the issue was trivial. He said on January 2: "If they do not return to work, I will call on the federal government to intervene and use legal powers, including prosecutions."

The federal government seems set to answer Barnett's calls. Gillard warned workers that her laws could leave the strikers "very, very, very substantially out of pocket".

From the project's 3000-strong workforce, more than 1000 defiant workers are refusing to return to work. Some have said they are willing to loss their jobs and face other consequences — which, under Gillard's laws, include jail — before they lose this long-standing condition.

With all unions who represent the workers legally hamstrung into asking the workers to return to work, these workers are continuing to fight the Woodside multinational alone.