On March 12, 100 people joined a community assembly at the Sydney desalination plant site to protest against the sacking of a Maritime Union of Australia divers' delegate for raising health and safety issues. It was also to protest the failure of Construction Diving Services (a subsidiary of Dempsey Industries) to negotiate a collective agreement with 14 divers on the site. Apart from MUA members, delegations from the Fire Brigades Employees Union and the Rail Tram and Bus Union attended.
Paul McAleer, MUA Sydney branch assistant secretary, told the protest that Dempsey Industries had refused to negotiate a union collective agreement with the workers, despite all 14 having requested it, insisting that they remain on a non-union agreement that it had signed them up to. He called on the federal Labor government to rapidly change industrial laws to guarantee workers this right.
The divers walked off the job on March 3, citing serious health and safety concerns, 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.
The Australian Industrial Relations Commission 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 14 workers. 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 issued the employer with several notices for breaches of OH&S, demonstrating the legitimacy of the divers' concerns. The divers remain at work, despite the dangerous conditions.
On-shore divers are grossly underpaid for the dangerous work they do. McAleer told Green Left Weekly that the MUA is "considering a number of activities to protest against Dempsey Industries" at sites around the country.