Wharfies walk off over death

Issue 

Work on every wharf in every port across Australia stopped for 24 hours from noon on July 23 to allow wharfies to attend services to mark the tragic death of Steve Piper.

Piper was crushed to death by a steel beam on Melbourne's Appleton Dock on July 14. The 24-hour stopwork also called for special national waterfront safety regulations.

Piper is the third wharfie killed on the job this year. Fourteen Australian maritime workers have been killed at work in the past two decades. Alarmingly, half of those have occurred in the past five years.

Every fatality has its own specific circumstances. But inevitably everyone in the industry is asking why there has been such an increase in recent years. There seem to be some underlying patterns: most of the deaths have happened in bulk and general stevedoring — the non-containerised cargoes such as heavy machinery, steel plate and pipes.

Bulk and general stevedoring involves some of the most dangerous work. But it's also the area in which employers have been most aggressive in trying to cut staffing levels, speed things up and attack the role of workplace union delegates.

Delegates from one company in particular, P&O Automotive and General Stevedoring (POAGS), have increasingly reported they are downgraded or threatened with the sack whenever they raise safety concerns.

Workers at POAGS Brisbane have even taken to wearing stickers declaring: “I won't be stood over.”

The first fatality this year occurred at POAGS Brisbane, when Brad Gray was run over by a forklift on February 20. The workers who stayed with Gray in the last minutes of his life that Friday were expected to attend work on Monday without any counselling.

Only a few hundred metres down the wharf, workers at Patrick Bulk and General who had witnessed the accident and could see people frantically performing CPR were told by their shift manager to keep working.

For the past few years, the Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) has called for national waterfront safety regulations. Some particularly dangerous industries, such as mining and construction, have special national regulations that are enforceable across all jurisdictions — but not stevedoring.

Maritime workers' safety is further undermined by fragmented government responsibility and the buck-passing that goes with it. For instance, work on the wharf is covered by the relevant state occupational health and safety authority, but the ship is the responsibility of the federal Australian Maritime Safety Authority.

But what happens if something goes wrong as a load is being lifted from the ship to the wharf? In some cases, both authorities have declined to respond, claiming it's the jurisdiction of the other.

WA MUA branch secretary Chris Cain reminded the 500 wharfies crowed into the union's hall for the service that it was only by being prepared to stand up to the threat of writs, fines and the sack that they could hope to win better safety outcomes.

WA Labor opposition leader Eric Ripper told the crowd that they had “a right and even obligation” to take the action they were taking. But already, POAGS workers in Bunbury have been told they will be sacked for walking off the job to attend the service.

Labor made a lot of positive noises in opposition. But nearly three years into its term, the federal government has still not committed to national waterfront safety regulation.

The 24-hour stoppage by wharfies in support of such regulation is illegal industrial action under existing law. That’s no less the case under Prime Minister Julia Gillard's regime than it was under John Howard.

How will Gillard respond? Waterside workers have had enough and will not stop until a national waterfront safety regulation is implemented.

[For more information, visit www.mua.org.au. Sam Wainwright is an MUA member, Fremantle wharfie and member of Fremantle Council for the Socialist Alliance.]

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