Port workers fight sacking in new war on the waterfront

A ship was in but cranes were idle at the Hutchison container terminal at Sydney’s Port Botany on Friday morning while security guards lined up across the gate. Workers, many of whom had been sacked the night before, were gathered in a group across from the entrance while MUA flags and banners lined the fence.

“I got a text message at about 1130pm last night from the company telling me to check my email,” a worker on the site union committee explained. “In my email was a letter telling me that I was sacked, with no chance of being redeployed by the company, anywhere, ever. The last line said ‘Don’t come in to get your belongings from the locker, we will send them to you’.

“They have picked heads—most of the 50 who got the message were members of the MUA union committee, or Health and Safety Reps—anyone who spoke up.” Altogether around 100 workers have been sacked between Sydney and Brisbane.

Workers were allocated to work the midnight shift and again this morning, but no one is inside. “I couldn’t go in while these guys are out here! No way,” explained another worker on the picket line, one of the 70 who was not sacked and was allocated for work this morning. “I think we are all in the firing line anyway. I think they are just taking turns in coming at us.”

The company is newly established in Sydney and is the biggest private port operator in the world. It is owned by Hong Kong billionaire Li Ka Shing, who also owns Vodafone Australia.

Australia’s main ports have historically had two container terminals, Patrick and DP World. After the Patrick dispute in 1998, as part of the “waterfront reform” agenda the ACCC and both major parties supported the establishment of a third container terminal in each main port. This competition would break up the waterfront “duopoly” and drive down stevedoring costs by cutting into both profits and wages. It was also argued that current terminals would soon reach full capacity and that more wharf space was required, or the economic development of Australia would be strangled.

Sydney Ports and the NSW government spent over $1 billion building the third terminal at Port Botany, a process overseen by disgraced former Ports minister Joe Tripodi. Multi-million dollar contracts in Brisbane and Sydney were given to Lend Lease and other construction companies.

Hutchison won 30 to 40 year contracts to operate both the new Sydney and Brisbane terminals in 2008 and 2009, in signing ceremonies that were seen as important enough to the state’s development to be attended by Labor premiers Kristina Keneally and Anna Bligh. The company then spent over $600 million building the terminal and bringing in the latest computerised and automated heavy machinery and cranes, most of it technology that had never been used in Australia. This created significant instability for workers in other terminals as it pressured other container terminals to introduce automated equipment. Redundancies took place at Patrick Port Botany and DP World Brisbane.

The first union agreement signed by the company when it began operations in 2013 was hailed as a model for agreements in automated terminals, with a 30-hour full-time week and full permanency. The Financial Review muttered that the agreement rolled back “gains” that companies had won through the Patrick dispute.

In early July, the company indicated by memo that it would be mothballing its Australian operations. The financial press tut-tutted that Hutchison had been too generous with its EBA, and advised the company that it needed to take on the union. Last week it circulated another memo saying it would sack 40 per cent of its 225 workers across both ports. It has so far refused to explain its actions to the union or even consult with it.

On Monday, the MUA held a well-attended rally at the Sydney terminal attended by workers, MUA members from across various maritime industries, Unions NSW, the RTBU, the TWU, the FBEU, and the CFMEU. Messages of solidarity were read out from around the world and from other MUA workplaces.

“We put this terminal into operation and organised it,” explained the lead delegate to the Monday rally. “I took the skills I had learned from Patrick and brought them over here, and we made this place work. Now they want to chuck us out the door without even a thank you.”

“It is very shady,” explained another worker on the union committee. “Brand new terminal and equipment, growing population and trade – we thought we had jobs for life here.” Workers say they have heard management talk about a secret operation called “Phoenix Rising”.

Recent government projections show trade rising 6 per cent a year in Brisbane and 4.5 per cent a year in Sydney. The colossal investment the company and the states have made indicate the company is not going anywhere. One thing is for certain though—the company has declared war on the MUA in a new round of union busting on the waterfront.

There is an ongoing picket line at Port Botany, Gate B150 Sirius Road (access via Foreshore Road) and in Brisbane at Curlew St Berth 11 Fishermans Island. Get down and show your support for the workers who have been sacked

Community assembly at Port Botany in Sydney 5.30pm today Friday 7 August

Follow the Hutchison Ports – Stop union busting page on Facebook here for updates


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