Sacked for refusing to sign an AWA

Issue 

Twelve workers have been sacked for refusing to sign AWAs (individual contracts) with their employer, Vopak Terminals, a Port Botany company that stores and handles bulk petroleum and chemical products.

The workers are all skilled terminal operators with experience ranging from 17 to 26 years at Vopak. At noon on April 26, they were all dismissed and given 15 minutes to clear out their gear and get off the site. The men, who work with dangerous chemicals, were not even allowed time to change their overalls and shower.

Management told them that they were being dismissed for operational reasons (which is allowed under Work Choices), and would be replaced by labour-hire casual workers.

The workers, members of the National Union of Workers (NUW), had been negotiating a new collective agreement since September 2006. They had refused to sign AWAs in place of a collective agreement as the AWAs stripped their conditions. These workers were sacked for standing up for their rights and for demanding a fair collective agreement.

The dispute is also about safety. The sacked workers are highly skilled: 12 months training is required to become an hazardous chemicals operator. The workers and their union are concerned that a new casualised work force would be dangerously underqualified. Green Left Weekly has learned that, currently, the work of handling these dangerous materials is being done by unqualified middle management and several just as unqualified workers on AWAs roped in from the newer "Site B" Vopak has established at a separate facility in Port Botany. Vopak has already forced all workers at their "Site B" onto AWAs.

Amanda Perkins, the Vopak workers' NUW organiser, told GLW that, up until this dispute, the company had dealt with the workers and the union quite well but that Work Choices gave it the go=ahead to attack like "dogs off the leash".

"The change in the behaviour of employers should not come as a surprise. But no matter how friendy management may seem at times, the fact remains that companies are run for profit and the bottom line remains the mighty dollar", Susan Price, a Socialist Alliance union activist told GLW.

"[PM John] Howard's draconian industrial relations laws unashamedly hand employers the power to force unfair AWAs and bad conditions onto working people. That employers use these laws is unsurprising. At Vopak, as at many other companies, the bosses want to force unionised workers out and replace them with casualised, unorganised and non-unionised workers for less pay and terrible conditions.

"Work Choices has already allowed employers in more casualised industries, such as hospitality, to cut conditions and pay. The Vopak dispute illustrates that these horrible laws are now having an impact on unionised workers."

The 12 workers are maintaining a picket at the site at 49 Friendship Road, Port Botany. Around 100 Maritime Union of Australia members marched in solidarity to the Vopak site April 30, and collected hundreds of dollars for the sacked workers. The sacked Vopak workers are seeking interim orders for unlawful termination and will be back in the Federal Court on May 21. They are continuing with their picket in the meantime.