One thousand eight hundred wharfies employed by DP World are facing one of the most serious attacks on waterfront workers’ conditions and jobs in decades. 

On 18 July the company sharply escalated its attack by announcing plans to make 200 wharfies redundant at its terminals in Melbourne and Sydney. The announcement was made in the business media before affected workers were notified, and timed to coincide with the beginning of a 48-hour strike by members of the Maritime Union of Australia (MUA). 

DP World is Australia’s largest stevedoring company. Parent company Dubai Ports World is one of the top five global port operators. Its 28,000 workers worldwide moved more than 36 million shipping containers last year – nearly one in every 20 of the world’s container port movements – generating a global profit of $US1.29 billion. Though DP World’s Australian operations turn over a minimum of $A500 million each year, the company did not pay a single cent in corporate tax in Australia in the four years to 2016-17 (the most recent year for which figures are available).

Along with its threat of 200 redundancies, management is pushing to outsource work traditionally done by wharfies, such as “cargo care” (looking after refrigerated containers), as well as some maintenance tasks. Management is also refusing to include an automation clause – already in the current Sydney agreement – that outlines a consultation and job-saving process in the event of automation. Management can’t even bring itself to add a clause covering 10 days’ leave for survivors of domestic violence: it wants domestic violence leave subject to company policy and management discretion, rather than an enforceable workplace entitlement.

In July, workers in DP World’s container terminals in Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne and Perth engaged in protected industrial action ranging from work bans to stoppages to two-day and four-day strikes. Senior DP World Australia executive Andrew Adam complained: “Four vessels have been redirected to other stevedores in July to mitigate delays, and we estimate 40 vessels and up to 110,000 containers will be delayed”. 

Management’s move to sack hundreds of wharfies during this industrial action was a blatant attempt at intimidation. Wharfies have often observed work moving to other operators during an enterprise agreement negotiation. However, there’s a back story to these latest moves, and the competitive pressures that DP World is facing.

The use of new, much bigger container ships that can’t be accommodated at DP World berths has caused work to move from DP World to Patrick Stevedores in Sydney and the new, highly automated VICT container terminal at Webb Dock in Melbourne. Another factor is that VICT employs its workforce on a cut price enterprise agreement, with casual pay rates 40 percent below the industry standards and no restrictions on casuals or penalty rates for overtime. After the sacking of a union delegate, VICT was the scene of a defiant community and worker picket that shut down the terminal for 19 days in late 2017. 

Though the picket got the delegate back on the payroll, it didn’t get him back on the job. And the substandard agreement is still in place. Reports on the MUA website describe 12-hour shifts, exhausted workers and a hyper-aggressive, bullying management. The expiry of the agreement at VICT in October this year raises the possibility of legally protected industrial action for the first time since VICT opened: a major challenge for the MUA will be to achieve an industry standard agreement there.

In the meantime, as the MUA predicted in 2017, VICT’s substandard agreement has motivated other companies such as DP World to attack conditions. Hutchison Ports, which operates terminals in Sydney and Brisbane, has also launched a log of claims attacking worker entitlements to redundancy, superannuation and consultation.

To win against all this is no small task, especially in the face of Australia’s anti-worker laws (constructed over decades by both Liberals and Labor). A series of rulings in Fair Work and the Federal Court have struck out various forms of industrial action by DP World workers. At the end of July, the MUA suspended industrial action, pending further negotiations and court proceedings. DP World has also withdrawn its change proposals, including the redundancies, while talks proceed.

The future of the dispute is far from clear, but the ingredients for a win are the same as always. Stubborn resistance. Stopping production. And solidarity: if DP World succeeds in driving conditions backwards for its workers – a key industrial workforce with solid union organisation and real industrial power – it’s a green light for further attacks. Bosses around the waterfront, and much further afield, will be looking at how the struggle unfolds at DP World. We all have a stake in this fight.