Waterfront set for automation shake-up

Drastic change is set to hit Sydney’s Port Botany. With the spectre of automation looming over the waterfront, the stevedoring industry will experience a shake-up as radical as the late 1960’s move to containerisation.

Asciano, owner of Patrick stevedores, is leading the charge. The company first announced its plans to automate Patrick Port Botany in July 2012. Asciano wants to cull 270 jobs from the workforce of 511 by August 2014. At no time were these plans ever mentioned during the protracted 20-month round of enterprise agreement negotiations with the Maritime Union, which were finalised only two months before the automation announcement. The other half of the traditional waterfront duopoly, DP World (formerly P&O Ports), is also pushing ahead with automation.Patrick’s Brisbane terminal was first automated back in 2005. Next in line is DP World’s Brisbane site, which will be “semi-automated” with eight automatic stacking cranes and 14 semi-automated manned shuttle carriers by the end of the year. DP World is still weighing up its options for Sydney and Melbourne.

A new third operator, Hutchinson Port Holdings (HPH), should be up and running in Sydney and Brisbane by the beginning of 2014. HPH will use similar “semi-automated” technology to that used at DP World Brisbane.

MUA national secretary Paddy Crumlin summed up the union’s response to automation in a letter to the Australian Financial Review last year. “[A]ny decision to impose automation without negotiation will be opposed”, he wrote, reminding readers that “the MUA and previously the Waterside Workers Federation have reached agreement for many decades on the introduction of automation”.

The MUA argues that Asciano’s decision to automate at Port Botany without consulting the union is a breach of the enterprise agreement. The union took Asciano to the Federal Court and Fair Work Australia, but dropped its Federal Court proceedings in November 2012. Union-company meetings moderated by Fair Work began later that month, but to date have achieved little.

Asciano’s automation plans are still sketchy. However, DP World’s are not. The company wants to use automation to casualise and de-unionise the Brisbane workforce. The company plans to halve the workforce, from 282 to 140, by slashing permanent positions from 97 to 25, cutting semi-permanent positions from 149 to 80 and maintaining “supplementary” casual numbers (increasing their proportion from 12 to 25 percent). Maintenance job losses and handing over traditional MUA jobs to management are also planned.

On a brighter note, wharfies at DP World Brisbane whose job loss is “specifically related to the introduction of a new mode of operation” (i.e. automation) will be paid an extra 12 weeks’ redundancy.

MUA relations with Hutchinson are quite different. MUA officials have finalised a new greenfields enterprise agreement with HPH, which includes the phased introduction of permanent jobs and a 30-hour week roster. A wharfie at HPH on the 30-hour week roster will earn $94,800, compared to a wharfie at DP World on a 36-hour roster on $107,000.

In the struggle against stevedoring automation, better redundancy packages are good. A 30-hour week is better. But why should wharfies bear the costs of automation? Why cop reduced salaries as the trade-off for a shorter work week?

Australian stevedores are highly profitable. A recent ACCC report proves it. Since the 1998 Patrick dispute, real costs in the stevedoring industry have fallen by 45 percent.

Wharfies should not bear the brunt of the stevedoring companies’ insatiable lust for profit. If we want to save our jobs and our livelihoods, the only option is to fight for a 30-hour week with no loss in pay. The stevedoring companies can well afford it. Wharfies cannot afford to fight for anything less.

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