Life on the wharves

December 1, 1999


Life on the wharves

By Robert Darcy

SYDNEY — Everyone knows a story or two about how "lazy" and "unproductive" wharfies are. That's what I found out when I started work on the waterfront a few months ago.

"Wharfies earn $100,000 a year for 12 hours work, don't they? They turn up to work for an hour then go and get pissed at the pub, right?" Peter Reith's lies have obviously fooled some people.

Certainly, you would be hard pressed to find some of the conditions that wharfies enjoy in almost any other workplace (a living example of the benefits of militant unionism). But the problems that wharfies now face are similar to those faced by other workers.

Recent enterprise bargaining agreements (EBAs) between the Maritime Union of Australia and P&O Ports and CTAL are a product of last year's historic Patrick dispute. P&O could smell blood; they wanted some of the spoils that Patrick had gained and decided to go for their own pound of flesh.

P&O openly boasts of its need to "re-size" the work force through voluntary redundancies. Around 540 employees (about 30% of the work force), with more than 13,000 years of service between them, received redundancy packages totalling almost $60 million as part of the latest round of enterprise bargaining.

At P&O White Bay, the number of permanent employees was almost halved to 76. Management has since hired at least 60 "supplementary employees" ("suppo's") and plans to hire more.

On the waterfront, suppo's are at the bottom of the food chain. There are no guarantees of work whatsoever. Standard procedure is a call in the afternoon for work the next day — a message on the answering machine at best. But calls offering work at one hour's notice are not unheard of. It's almost the 1990s version of the infamous "bull system", where workers went to the wharves each day hoping that management would choose them for that day's work.

Hours of work are totally dependent on how busy the port is. One week you can work 50 or 60 hours and the next week you might not work at all. Day to day and week to week budgeting, and planning time off, are all but impossible.

About the only constant is the hourly rate of pay — a flat rate regardless of whether the work is morning, night or weekends. Great for company profits but not for wharfies.

The latest EBA makes it easy to play wharfies off against one another. It seems that not everyone is happy with their lot.

Permanents have been moved from regular Monday to Friday work to irregular hours and shifts — 50-plus hours doing night shift one week then 10 hours doing mornings the next.

Salaries and the 35-hour work week have both been annualised. Not only does management have greater flexibility, but the big dollars that wharfies could earn doing overtime are all but gone. Overtime penalties are now paid only after permanents have worked 1365 hours in a year, not 35 hours in the week.

Guaranteed wage employees (GWEs) have a bit more stability than supplementary labour, with guaranteed work for a couple of shifts a week. As you can imagine, the suppo's envy the GWEs and the GWEs envy the permanents.

Suppo's envy not only permanents and GWEs but also each other. Those who have done more training are more likely to get work first, and those hired last are seen by others as taking work which should be theirs. It goes without saying that all suppo's want the hiring of more casual labour to stop.

Besides ensuring that workers are being paid only for so long as the employer wants to, the aim of having casual labour is to break down worker solidarity and union organisation. It seems to be having that effect on the wharves.

But all is not lost. In the space of just a few months, both the bastardry of management and the resistance of workers became obvious to me as a newcomer.

P&O management has two main approaches — the "if it's not written in the EBA, we can get away with it" approach and the passive resistance approach. Management regularly tries to coax new employees into doing extra work.

A favourite tactic is to get the person on first aid duty (a St Johns Ambulance-trained wharfie who stays in the first aid room by the radio at all times) to undertake data entry work in the administration building. Despite the waterfront being one of the three most dangerous industries in Australia, management considers first aid duty "unproductive".

One of management's passive resistance tricks was the "delay" payment of the bi-monthly bonus agreed to in the EBA; the July and August bonus was not paid until the start of November.

The issuing of uniforms and wet weather gear has also been delayed. Management has taken months to issue equipment that should have been received immediately on commencing work. Most suppo's did not receive wet weather gear for almost three months and had to work in the rain without it.

It took one gang's refusal in late October to work in heavy rain to force management to measure all supplementary labour for uniforms and wet weather gear, which will be available next week.

Incidents like this are a lesson in the value of basic solidarity — and with the setbacks resulting from the fallout from the Patrick dispute, it's a lesson that waterfront workers will need to take to heart.

You need Green Left, and we need you!

Green Left is funded by contributions from readers and supporters. Help us reach our funding target.

Make a One-off Donation or choose from one of our Monthly Donation options.

Become a supporter to get the digital edition for $5 per month or the print edition for $10 per month. One-time payment options are available.

You can also call 1800 634 206 to make a donation or to become a supporter. Thank you.