In response to protracted negotiations with the Maritime Union of Australia (MUA), DP World Australia has announced plans to retrench 200 workers at its Melbourne and Sydney container terminals.
The MUA, which is affiliated with the Construction Forestry Maritime Mining and Energy Union (CFMMEU), said the cuts would amount to shedding over ten per cent of its workforce.
The Dubai-owned company announced the plans on 18 July 2019. The cuts coincide with another 47 wharfies scheduled to finish up in Melbourne.
The MUA argued that the timing of the announcement — during protected industrial action at the company’s Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane and Fremantle container terminals — constituted an attempt to threaten workers into accepting cuts to their rights and conditions.
MUA Assistant National Secretary, Warren Smith, said DP World sacking workers to achieve an industrial outcome was an extreme act.
“Management have refused to meet, telling wharfies that they’ll get an agreement only if they withdraw their claims and accept the company’s claims, which result in less job security and worse conditions,” Mr Smith said.
The MUA also criticised DP World for notifying media outlets of the cuts before contacting the affected workers.
Andrew Adam, Chief Operating Officer at DP World Australia, called for an end to the industrial action, arguing that during the recent 12-week bargaining period, the MUA did not make any material concessions to its initial 50 claims.
“The industrial action will cause significant disruption to DPWA customers and importantly the broader supply chain of shippers, exporters and importers. DPWA employees will also be unnecessarily and avoidably impacted by these lost earnings,” Mr Adam said.
Fair Work Commission rules against future action
On Friday 19 July, the Fair Work Commission ruled that the bans on working shift extensions, call-ins and early or delayed start times failed to occur within the time limit for protected action, according to a report by the Australian Financial Review (AFR).
The ruling will prevent the MUA from taking the industrial action in the future, though strikes and other work bans, such as on overtime and job upgrades, would still be protected.
MUA National Assistant Secretary, Warren Smith, told the AFR that while the bans were “fairly inconsequential”, the union would appeal the decision as it created a significant loophole to avoid industrial action.
“It opens up manipulation of the act to employers to such extent that it effectively nullifies or negates the use of bans as industrial action in the broader sense. It could apply anywhere,” Mr Smith said.
ALC airs concern for industry productivity
The Australian Logistics Council (ALC) has said that industrial action being pursued by the company is producing negative effects for Australian businesses and households.
ALC CEO, Kirk Coningham, said the action is estimated to already have delayed up to 110,000 shipping containers carrying the sorts of goods Australian businesses and households rely on every day.
“Boosting productivity on the waterfront will be critical to maintain Australia’s international
competitiveness, and to our ability to meet a growing domestic freight task,” Mr Coningham said.
“This is something that stevedores, port operators and shipping lines have long recognised. It is time unions did the same.”
Mr Coningham argued that changing demand patterns and new technologies mean Australians are living in a “different economic reality”.
“To ensure sustainability into the future, our supply chains will need to embrace the greater use of technology in day-to-day operations.
“Rather than retreating to the tired tactics of yesteryear and pursuing unviable claims, the CFMMEU should embrace this new reality by working cooperatively with stevedores like DP World Australia and others to ensure the workforce is equipped with the skills needed to adapt to a changing world,” he said.
Mr Coningham noted that the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) Container Stevedoring Monitoring Report 2017–18 found that Australia’s quayside productivity levels do not compare favorably with those of other industrialised nations. In addition, crane productivity has trended down since 2011–12.
“It is essential that we address and reverse that trend in order to maintain our living standards and meet rising demand for freight,” he said.
“Protracted industrial action accompanied by unrealistic demands for inflexible protections in enterprise agreements is not going to achieve that outcome. It will simply drive up costs, threatening the viability of stevedoring operations in Australia and forcing employers to seek new ways of doing business.”
“Australian consumers should not be paying the price for a protracted industrial dispute that directly jeopardises jobs on the waterfront, and indirectly threatens jobs right through the supply chain.”