Workers defy Fair Work ban on social golf day

Workers at DP World’s Port Botany terminal have defied a Fair Work Commission ruling ordering them not to participate in a golf day. The commission agreed with the company that attendance at the social day would constitute unlawful industrial action. The decision, issued by a Labor appointee to the commission, deputy president Geoff Bull – former director of workplace relations for the boss’s advocacy organisation, the Australian Mines and Metals Association – was rushed out the evening before the golf day was planned. 

The ruling was aimed at casual wharfies who had chosen to nominate 10 May as a day off work. Casual workers on the docks don’t get the traditional weekend. Instead, their rosters are variable and determined by the company according to its “business requirements”. What casual wharfies do have is a right, under the enterprise agreement, to elect eight “scratchings” a month. A “scratching” is a day that a wharfie nominates as a day off.

When a few hundred dock workers nominated 10 May as a “scratching”, the company hurried to the commission seeking an order prohibiting the casual workers from having a collective day off. Bastiaan Hokke, general manager at DP World’s Port Botany terminal, told the commission that if “irregularly engaged employees” were not available for work, “it would cause significant disruption and delay to DP World’s operations … leading to DP World and its customers suffering significant financial and other loss”. 

Hokke’s evidence about the indispensability of casual dock workers to usual operations might have come as a surprise to union representatives. The maritime union regularly pushes for more casual workers to be offered permanent positions but is generally rebuffed by the company’s claims that it doesn’t need them. 

As well as seeking a ban order from the commission, DP World threatened disciplinary action against those who did not attend their shift. Despite the commission’s order and the company’s intimidation, 96 percent of the 250-strong casual workforce showed incredible courage by standing up for their right to have a planned day off. The social day at Port Botany Golf Club went off without a hitch, many in attendance hoping for similar days in the near future. 

The dispute about “scratchings” came in the midst of stevedores raising a number of critical safety concerns. In particular, there have been numerous incidents in which the wire ropes used by quay cranes have snapped. Workers also discovered that a part declared unsafe on another type of crane – the rubber-tyred gantries – had not been replaced despite multiple requests from the safety committee. 

The safety fears of workers are well founded. The wire ropes are used to hoist shipping containers that weigh more than 20 tonnes. If one rope snaps, the rest are likely to follow. The outcome for anyone caught underneath a fallen container needs no explanation. People working up higher are not out of harm’s way either. A snapped rope recoils like a broken rubber band, except that a snapped steel rope won’t sting if it hits you, it will cut you in half. This is a particular concern for people working on ships close to the cranes.

A lack of preventive maintenance is being blamed for the failures. A recent investigation revealed that the company contracted to perform maintenance on the cranes neglected to grease wire ropes to prevent rust and corrosion. Another major factor is the slashing of maintenance jobs during the global financial crisis. Maintenance numbers have not been restored to pre-2008 levels despite work at the terminal increasingly substantially. 

In the latest labour review, the Maritime Union of Australia identified several jobs for diesel fitters and trades assistants that could be created in the maintenance department. However, the company refuses to come to the negotiating table with more than crumbs.

These safety concerns and the company’s heavy-handed approach to the golf day for casuals are likely to be hot topics during enterprise agreement negotiations set to begin in August. The defiance already shown by the hundreds who attended the golf day is a sign that the DP World workforce is ready for the fight.