Waterfront wages and conditions dragged backwards

The fastest growing maritime terminal operator in the world, ICTSI, is waging an assault on the wages and conditions of workers. The company operates 29 container terminals across six continents, including Australia, where it owns VICT at Webb Dock East in Melbourne. It is Australia’s first fully automated terminal. 

Across ICTSI’s operations, the International Transport Federation has found serious safety breaches and a pattern of aggressive anti-union activity. The company is bringing the same approach to its Australian operations. Workers are being forced to work through their meal breaks, undertake training in their own time and work extended and unsafe hours. In some cases workers have been forced to work shifts as long as 19 hours. 

In an increasingly common tactic to undercut industry standards, the workplace agreement that sets the pay and conditions of VICT workers was voted on by five hand-picked staff, before most workers were even employed by the company. The agreement slashes penalty rates and the casual loading. The company has been aided by former deputy national secretary of the MUA, Mick O’Leary. O’Leary represented the MUA for 27 years before going on to advise stevedoring companies on port privatisations and workplace restructuring. 

Maritime workers at VICT have been victimised for speaking up about their rights. Failure to meet productivity targets has led to threats that jobs will be outsourced and offshored.  

The MUA has staged some resistance to ICTSI’s union busting. On 14 November it held a rally at VICT, drawing in solidarity from the construction and rail unions, with 200 workers and trade union officials present. Will Tracey, the current deputy national secretary of the MUA, addressed the rally. “This is the start of the campaign. This is the first rally about a cancer we will see spread if we don’t stop the likes of Mick O’Leary”, he said.  

The Maritime Union of Australia has been seeking to establish minimum standards for wages and conditions, but the company has refused to negotiate with the union. It is also trying to have its stevedores reclassified as “auxiliary automation employees” to exclude the union from coverage.

Speaking to Red Flag, Victorian state secretary Joe Italia said: “VICT have sought to open up a third terminal that is fully automated. We are unhappy at this situation. VICT has chosen to have our workers work under an agreement that they are not signatories to. The challenge is for us to get the company to sit down with our membership to work out an agreement that meets the basic standards of the industry.” 

May Kotsakis, co-chairperson of the Philippines Australia Solidarity Association spoke about the importance of international workers’ solidarity. “Workers in the Philippines would be lucky to earn A$5,000 a year. They are really exploited. It is not surprising businesses want to outsource there”, she said. “We are here in Australia to build solidarity. We understand the global nature of capitalism, that capital moves to where labour regulations are the most lax. We need to unite with all unions.”