After a ten-day standoff with Hutchison, Sydney wharfies returned to work on Sunday 12 April after winning dramatic safety improvements to manage the risk of coronavirus at work.
Employees had not set foot in the terminal since Friday 3 April, when the first of two COVID-19 positive cases in the workforce was revealed.
The company had recklessly withheld information from the workforce for hours. Then, in the days after, they downplayed the number of workers who had potentially been exposed and tried to exclude the union from assisting in the tracing process.
However, a “cease-work” order issued by a Health and Safety Representative (HSR) from the safety committee, brought work to a halt. The order outlined the company’s failure to put safe systems of work in place. The Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) demanded widespread testing for employees, better systems to allow for social distancing and minimising shift interaction, and adequate cleaning processes.
The cease-work order was upheld by SafeWork NSW—a significant decision—as SafeWork NSW are well-known as an unreliable ally for workers when it comes to safety disputes.
But, despite the safety orders, Hutchison ignored the seriousness of the situation, and continued to allocate workers to shifts every day from 6 April. The wharfies, however, called in absent—citing compliance with the cease work order.
In a belligerent email the company said it was, “disappointing that some are engaging in industrial action”. They have now confirmed their intention to dock workers’ pay for these shifts.
Despite these threats, important safety measures have been won. Importantly, the cease-work was in place for long enough for many workers to be tested and to significantly reduce the chance that any potentially COVID-19 positive worker could have transmitted the virus to others.
A full-time COVID-officer—an HSR—has been rostered on to every shift for a week to ensure the new safety policies are implemented.
Toolbox talks (at the start of every shift) are now separated into small work-groups. At change of shift, everyone completely leaves the terminal before the next shift enters. There are also restrictions on numbers in utes, vans and rooms, as well as additional PPE (personal protective equipment) measures, and a cleaning checklist to be completed throughout each shift.
But there will need to be an ongoing fight to stop the company docking pay, to ensure the new safety measures are properly implemented on every shift, and that the union site committees are properly consulted and involved in managing any further change in practice or future coronavirus cases.
The win sets a precedent for the safety standards workers need everywhere, and shows what a highly unionised and organised workforce can achieve.
From the beginning, the union demanded mass coronavirus testing for the workforce.
Whilst the company only identified 17 potential close contacts of the COVID-19 positive employees, this number doubled in size after input from the union and site committees.
If Hutchison had acted decisively from the start, instead of covering up and downplaying the risks, widespread testing of the workforce could have started much earlier, giving a much clearer picture of the level of risk.
The union wanted a broader basis for testing. Around 250 employees share turnstiles, machinery, smoko rooms, kitchen facilities, change rooms and bathrooms. NSW Health’s narrow definition of a “close contact” does not account for this.
In the end, the NSW Chief Medical Officer agreed that those who had worked between 24 March and 3 April were at risk. But the company never reported this to the workforce.
Testing and rigorous tracing have been an important part of the response in countries that have kept the virus under relative control.
The horrifying debacle of the Ruby Princess cruise ship, which has now claimed 21 lives, should never have happened; all the crew and every passenger should have been tested with those disembarking quarantined before re-entering the community. The MUA and the International Transport Federation (ITF) have now won testing for all remaining crew. Mandatory testing at airports could also provide a sensible alternative to cruel blanket travel bans which see families unable to re-unite, even in tragic circumstances.
The double standards and inconsistencies of the authorities’ response to this crisis are staggering. Over the Easter long weekend many heavy-handed fines were handed out by police. In one case, an individual, who had recently been laid off, was fined $1000 for having a coffee and cigarette in his car on the headland.
And yet at work, wharfies risk being penalised for taking safety too seriously.
It is all too easy to get slapped with a $1000 fine or worse, and yet near impossible to meet NSW Health’s over-the-phone criteria to access a test. The opposite should be true.
The priorities of a sick system are on display. But the fight at Hutchison showed how, with organisation, workers and ordinary people can take these priorities into our own hands and put health and safety ahead of profit.