MUA: ‘Keeping people working safely is a challenge under COVID-19’

Keeping workers safe and in a job has been the Martime Union of Australia's proirity.

Maritime Union of Australia Victorian branch deputy secretary David Ball told an online forum on April 29, hosted by Socialist Alliance and Green Left, about the difficulties of keeping workers working and safe during the COVID-19 lockdown.

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The Maritime Union of Australia has a very high density membership, up above 95%. At the moment, companies are coming to negotiate with us and I’ve been spending all my days on Zoom, trying to ensure that no worker is left behind.

A lot of the MUA members don’t look like they’re going to be eligible for the JobKeeper allowance, and we are trying to get other assistance from the federal and state governments.

Right of entry has become a lot more difficult. At the start of the COVID-19 crisis, we were trying to put measures in place to keep workers safe, while keeping everybody at work.

We’ve gone from talking about health issues to now talking about the economic issues. I’ve just spent seven or eight hours on a Zoom meeting and health, or the spread of the virus, was not mentioned once.

It was all about putting measures in place to protect the company’s profit and loss statement. From the union’s perspective, it was about keeping workers earning an income. There have been a couple of small businesses go to the wall. But, so far, we’ve been able to keep everyone employed at a certain level.

Certainly, the doom and gloom given to me today by the bulk and general industry (anything that doesn’t fit in a container) is that everything is on the dive down, including cars. Sales are meant to be down by up to 50%, or the ships bringing cars into Australia are down by 50%, which is a lot of volume for our industry.

Ruby Princess

The Ruby Princess cruise ship disaster was a shameful situation. In the end, the South Coast Labour Council, the International Transport Workers’ Federation and the MUA did a pretty good job of looking after those international seafarers.

It shows how difficult it is for those seafarers. We’re dealing with this each day, including Australian seafarers and their ability to join or not join ships.

At the start of this crisis, companies were requesting that seafarers stay on the ships a lot longer than they normally would. Our seafarers normally do between four- and six-week swings. Woodside asked if we could leave our seafarers on vessels for up to three months. That’s totally unacceptable. We are still having problems trying to get our seafarers off vessels, but we are winning that battle.

If you need to go to Western Australia to join a vessel, or a job, you need to spend 14 days in a hotel in isolation before you can join your vessel. That adds a couple of weeks to your working program.

The company going through the most pain in Victoria and Tasmania is the TT-Line [which operates the Bass Strait service]. It has no passengers, only freight, and we are trying to negotiate to keep everyone employed.

Unfortunately, the casuals are not working at all. We have had an arrangement for the permanent part-time workers, where they get 91 days work a year. But, because the year had been going well, most had worked more than 91 days. They have not been laid down, the company has no further obligation to them until June 30, but they are not working either.

Work hours down

The permanent workforce is working 25% of the time they would normally. So, where possible, they’re using their leave to supplement their income. It is a difficult situation.

The MUA has membership in more than 40 ports around Australia. We also represent members in a couple of tug boat companies.

After negotiating for the last eight months a new national enterprise agreement (EBA) with one company, about four weeks ago, it put a proposal to rollover the current agreement for two years and freeze our salaries. It was using the virus to remove everything that we’d gained [in the new EBA]. A lot of companies are trying to do this.

The dispute at DP World in Melbourne involved how to deal with people who had not been in isolation, or quarantine, for 14 days. Our workforce decided not to discharge a vessel for health and safety reasons because there were no clear directions about how they were meant to deal with the vessels. They’d only been dealing with the cruise ships. At no point did the health department or Border Force address stevedores or vessels other than cruise ships.

The companies responded very aggressively. Over five shifts, around 120 workers refused to work in unsafe conditions. They have all received written warnings and five people have been suspended on pay. We’re asking the federal and Victorian governments to tell DP World to drop the charges and the warnings and get people back to work.

We did have a win recently with WorkSafe and the tug boat industry. In Melbourne, it is a safety requirement to have two tugs available 24 hours a day, for emergency reasons. If you’re working on one of those two tugs, your shift is classified as “captive”, which means you have to be on the tug for the duration of your shift — two 12-hour shifts.

But due to COVID-19, our health and safety officers decided it was not safe for the members to be on the tugs for the whole 12 hours. They developed a system where they would get to the tugs as soon as possible if an emergency situation arose.

But the harbour master had different ideas: he wanted the tugs to be captive, as did the company, and they put together their own risk assessment and ordered the workers back to work.

The MUA members put two PIN notices [provisional improvement notices] on the company.  WorkSafe came down and ruled in favour of the workers. That was a good win.

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