The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission's sixth annual Container Stevedoring Monitoring Report, which was made public on November 15, claims that the cost reduction gains made by the stevedore bosses as a result of the 1998 waterfront dispute are being eroded by a lack of new investment at Australia's container ports.
According to the report, in the first year after the 1998 waterfront dispute labour costs totalled $88.71 per container lifted and they steadily declined to $66.34 in 2002-03. But the ACCC report says that in the year to June 30, labour costs jumped to $69.94 per container lifted — the highest level since 2001.
The report argues that the rising relative weight of labour costs is the result of Australia's national stevedoring industry reaching maximum capacity, and that this has led to rising labour costs through the need to use a higher proportion of casual labour and increasing overtime payments.
To counteract this, the ACCC is pushing for increased investment by the existing stevedore companies in infrastructure, and for examination of measures by the Howard government to aid the entry of a third national stevedoring company into the industry.
“Investment is now urgently needed to expand the capacity of the ports; either investment by existing stevedores Patrick and P&O or by the potential entry of a new third stevedore”, declared ACCC chairperson Graeme Samuels.
The ACCC's report has received a flurry of positive corporate media coverage. The focus of the coverage has been over the breakdown of profits between the stevedoring companies on the one hand and importers and exporters on the other. But the real target is the wages and conditions of wharfies, whose experience of speed-ups and increasing work intensity since 1998 has resulted in an increase in the volume of cargo moving through Australia's major ports of 10% per year over the last six years.
This increased productivity has meant that, although the amount charged for lifting a container has continued to decline, there has been an increase in the profit margin on each container lifted from $10.82 in 1998-99 to $22.82 in 2003-2004 (although the margin fell slightly in the last financial year). This has contributed to the 41.9% rise in Patrick Corporation's annual profits in the last financial year to $215.24 million.
Increased competition in the stevedoring industry would place greater pressure on waterfront companies to drive down workers' wages and speed-up operations in order to main their profitability.
Recognising the possible threat to its members' wage and conditions containing in the ACCC report's proposals, the Maritime Union of Australia (MUA), has joined the stevedoring companies in opposing the entry of a third company into the industry. MUA deputy secretary Jim Tannock told the November 16 Australian “we don't support a third operator because we don't see how it works”.
However, while a united response by Patrick, P&O and the MUA may stop the introduction of a third stevedore company, it is unlikely to stop an attempt by the stevedoring bosses to drive down workers' conditions. Chris Corrigan, Patrick CEO, is a signatory to an November 15 open letter calling on Prime Minister John Howard urging him to undertake dramatic changes to Australia's industrial relation system, including stripping back the unions rights to take strike action and to establish individual contracts as the primary means for regulating employment conditions.
Originally published in Green Left Weekly #608
Wednesday, December 1, 2004
Wednesday, November 3, 2004
The September 2 High Court's Electrolux decision has signalled a serious assault on the right of workers to organize and strike.
In a six-to-one decision, the High Court ruled that bargaining-agent fees could not be included in an enterprise agreement as this “does not pertain to the employer-employee relationship” and is thus in violation of Section 170LI of the Workplace Relations Act (WRA).
Bargaining-agent fees are levies paid to the union by non-union members to recognise gains the union has won for all workers in the industry.
The immediate effect of the High Court's ruling is that industrial action undertaken against Electrolux by unions seeking enterprise agreements that included bargaining fees is now deemed not to have been “protected action”, leaving the unions and their members open to be sued for legal damages by Electrolux.
However, as bargaining agent fees had already been banned by the Coalition government's June 2002 amendments to the WRA, the significance of the decision broke the previous interpretation of the WRA by both the Federal Court and the Australian Industrial Relations Commission (AIRC).
The previous interpretation had been that enterprise agreements could contain some “non-pertaining” items as long as the whole agreement could be characterised as pertaining to the relationship between employer and employees. The September 2 ruling calls into question the inclusion of a wide range of provisions in enterprise agreements, including automatic deduction of union dues from workers' pay, entitlements of union delegates and trade union to training leave, encouragement/facilitation of union membership and the right of union officials to enter workplaces.
The court's decision means that industrial action taken to support a claim that includes non-pertaining issues cannot be considered protected action.
The decision has caused considerable confusion and uncertainty as it calls into doubt the certification of thousands of EAS, including those already certified by the AIRC. Adding to this confusion and uncertainty has been the threat by companies such as Wesfarmers in Western Australia to seek legal damages for past industrial action that they argue was not protected action in the light of the High Court's ruling.
The uncertainty over allowable clauses in enterprise agreements has been partially allayed with the first test case of the Electrolux decision in the AIRC, on the agreement between Victorian butter manufacturer K.L. Ballantyne and the National Union of Workers. On October 25, AIRC deputy president Iain Ross refused to certify the agreement, arguing that payroll deductions of union fees did not pertain to the employer-employee relationship.
However, Ross's ruling allows clauses relating to prohibitions on the use of Australian Workplace Agreements, trade union training leave, right of workplace entry for union officials and paid union meeting provisions, union picnic days, union access to time and wages records and limitations on the use of contractors and casuals to be included in agreements.
While the K.L Ballantyne decision signals that many agreements can now be certified, unions continue to face challenges. How to protect those clauses that are viewed as not-pertaining is still an issue.
The re-elected federal Coalition government's next wave of industrial relations legislation is likely to include measures reinforcing the High Court's Electrolux decision. Any union strategy that delays challenging attacks on workers' rights can only undermine the capacity of unions to fight back and increase the Coalition's confidence to attack workers.
Originally published in Green Left Weekly #605
Wednesday, September 8, 2004
On August 31, Australian Defence Industries informed the Western Australian Equal Opportunity Commission that it intends to apply for an exemption from the WA Equal Opportunity Act.
If upheld, the application would allow ADI to exclude from employment workers born in any of the 20 countries that appear on a US government blacklist. It would also require all employees to wear tags indicating their country of birth.
While the changes would meet the requirements of the recently introduced US International Traffic in Arms Regulations, and allow ADI to bid for lucrative US defence contracts, it is estimated that 40% of ADI's 220 employees in Western Australia would face dismissal or transfer.
The application for exemption is being opposed by the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union, Equal Opportunity Commissioner Yvonne Henderson and UnionsWA. AMWU state secretary Jock Ferguson told Workers Online on September 3 that the proposal was a form of apartheid and was unacceptable.
According to the September 3 West Australian, ADI has already been granted an exemption by the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal, in order to prevent ADI losing US contracts, and is expected to apply for exemptions in Queensland and New South Wales.
From Green Left Weekly #597.
Wednesday, August 25, 2004
By Chris Latham
On August 17, 40 police broke up the six-week-old Forest Rescuers' protest camp in the Ludlow Forest near Busselton in south-west Western Australia, evicting 70 protesters.
The move against the camp followed the granting of final approval to the Cable Sands' mineral sands mine in the Ludlow forest — the world's last remaining tall tuart forest, on August 16.
The WA Labor government, which faces losing the local seat of Bunbury in the coming state election without Green preferences, has been attempting to downplay the possible impact of the mine.
State development minister Clive Brown told the August 18 West Australian, that the Ludlow Forest " not a tuart forest, it is an old-growth forest, it is degraded plantation land".
However, the anti-mining campaign has never claimed that Ludlow is an old-growth forest, but that it is rare ecosystem — part of the last remnants of the tuart forests that were heavily logged into the 1970s.
In 2002, the National Trust listed the Ludlow Forest as an endangered place in response to Cable Sands' proposal to mine the area. The Environmental Protection Authority has authorised the logging of 1185 trees, stipulating that 70% of trees older than 100 years must be preserved, while only 50% of those trees between 80-100 years old must preserved.
However, Friends of the Tuart Forest have raised concerns about the future health of the remaining trees due to possible damage to root systems from Cable Sands' intention to mine to within four metres of mature trees.
The campaign to protect the forest continues. A new camp has been set up in the Ludlow Forest. To find out about getting involved in the campaign, upcoming protests or how to visit the camp, visit the Save the Tuarts website (
From Green Left Weekly #596.
Wednesday, July 28, 2004
By Chris Latham
On July 22, Australian Education Union WA school representatives condemned state education minister Allan Carpenter for planned unilateral changes to teachers' working conditions.
On July 8, two days prior to the end of second term, Carpenter announced that the WA Labor government intended to introduce five-year contracts for teachers and principals in public schools. From 2005, all teachers with metropolitan appointments will face being shifted to a new school at the end of their contract.
The changes will also allow administrative staff deemed by the education department to be underperforming to be demoted, and will give greater autonomy to principals in the hiring and firing of teachers.
Carpenter has argued that the changes will increase the ability of teachers with country appointments to transfer back to Perth, encouraging graduate teachers to move to country positions.
A July 22 AEU meeting resolution said that Carpenter's "actions constitute an unacceptable attack on the quality of teaching in government schools, on the certified agreement and on the teaching workforce".
According to the AEU, the changes will have little benefit for country teachers. Instead, they will result in increased uncertainty for both teachers and schools in the metropolitan area with regular upheavals through staffing changes — a problem already experienced in WA's country schools.
The AEU has threatened to launch a political and industrial campaign if the government persists with the proposed changes.
From Green Left Weekly #591.
Wednesday, May 19, 2004
By Chris Latham
On May 13, chanting, "What do we want? — Workers' comp!", more than 2500 workers marched on the Western Australian parliament. The rally was organised by the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU), the Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) and the Electrical Trade Union (ETU) in response to new workers' compensation legislation introduced into parliament on May 5.
CFMEU state secretary Kevin Reynolds told the rally the amendments do not go far enough and will leave "WA having the worst workers comp system in Australia".
The new legislation will restrict injured workers' access to common law, as secondary impairments, including psychological ones, will no longer count for the threshold that allows such legal action. The rally demanded: no maximum in payments; reintroduction of journey cover; and no threshold for access to common law damages.
MUA branch secretary Chris Cain told the rally that the legislation "was nothing more than Liberal legislation".
Reynolds threatened ongoing action unless the government "becomes a more sympathetic government to the working class". He welcomed the support for the rally from the MUA, the Communications, Electrical and Plumbing Union (CEPU) and rank-and-file members of the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union, but attacked union leaders, including UnionsWA secretary Stephanie Mayman, who were not supporting the rally or the campaign for a better workers' compensation system.
Rally speakers included the partners of killed construction workers, ETU organiser Peter Carter, workers' compensation lawyer and activist Paul O'Halloran, CFMEU assistant secretary Joe McDonald and Greens MLC Jim Scott, who promised that the Greens would try to amend the legislation in the interests of working people.
State industrial relations minister John Kobelke defended the legislation, telling the May 14 West Australian that it would "provide $130 million in extra benefits to injured workers". Socialist Alliance senate candidate and MUA activist Ian Jamieson told Green Left Weekly that the figure only looked at statutory benefits and was "a pittance" in comparion to the savings of insurance companies from tightening common law benefits.
Mayman told the West Australian, "attempts to overturn the reforms could leave us with the dreadful system we've got now and no-one wants that".
Jamison argued that this misses the point, because a real fight by the unions could force a backdown. At the moment, he said, the ALP was mostly held back by its "commitments to protecting insurance company profits, which already stand at $270 million a year".
From Green Left Weekly #582
Thursday, April 29, 2004
By Chris Latham
A herbicide used in the highly toxic chemical mixture Agent Orange — widely used during the US war in Vietnam — was still being used in Australia as late as 1985.
A group of workers, employed by the Western Australian government's Agricultural Protection Board (APB), who sprayed the herbicide in the remote Kimberley region have battled for decades to get official recognition for a wide range of illnesses which they blame on exposure to chemicals.
Finally, in February this year, the WA government agreed to pay compensation to 17 workers employed by the APB in the Kimberley between 1975 and 1985.
According to July 2002 government-commissioned study — the Kimberley Chemical Use Review (available at < http://www.ministers.wa.gov.au/Feature_stories/Chance_KimbChemRevA HREF="mailto:iew.pdf">
A soil sample taken from the Derby APB store site in 1999 indicated that the herbicide may have had higher levels of TCDD contamination than the maximum legal level permitted. While it is unclear what the source of this contamination may have been, it is possible that Agent Orange was imported cheaply after the end of the US war in Vietnam. What is clear is that over an extended period of time, workers were spraying herbicides that were in unlabeled drums.
Adding to the danger of dioxin exposure was the lack of occupational, health and safety measures that would have limited possible exposure.
Of the Aboriginal workers employed by APB in the Kimberley region, 90% told the review they received no safety training. While this partly reflected a lack of legislative measures mandating what was adequate protection, there is considerable evidence that in other parts of WA workers wore protective gear.
The APB workers in the Kimberley were told by managers that water near where the herbicide was sprayed was safe to drink. "Safety" videos made by the APB showed the herbicide being sprayed by workers wearing shorts and T-shirts, despite the manufacturer's labels (from 1969) specifying that skin contact should be avoided.
The workers were given no clear direction on storage of the herbicides or on safe food preparation in their work camps.
Numerous anecdotes were provided to the review of workers who had their clothes saturated with 2,4,5-T in the course of their work, and these clothes being taken home and washed with other family garments.
The workers and their families' fears of the possible dangers of the herbicides increased when an APB worker died suddenly during a local football match. The worker was 33 years old and physically fit, but had had a high level of exposure to the 2,4,5-T.
Despite these concerns, there has been little provision of information to the local communities were the spraying was carried out or to workers over the past 20 years.
Dr Andrew Harper, the report's author, found that among the 90 former APB employees interviewed, at least 13 probably had illnesses resulting from exposure to the herbicides. His report made 16 recommendations, including that the agriculture minister acknowledge that former APB workers and their families had been exposed to an increased risk of ill health as a consequence of the APB's policies and practices.
Harper also recommended that consideration be given to compensating those workers who had been exposed to the herbicide and suffered disability as a consequence.
In response, the government convened a new "medical expert panel" to investigate whether Harper's conclusion about "an association between the herbicide and illness was scientifically accurate".
This new review published its report in February. It concluded that Harper's report had not established a causal relationship between the exposure to 2,4,5-T and the ill health that the APB workers have experienced. It also argued that the 17 cancers and 49 deaths that have occurred among the 321 workers employed by the APB in the Kimberley over the period studied were "non-significant" as a statistical test. The workers' cancer rate was 48% higher and their death rate 9% higher than Kimberley residents not exposed to herbicide.
This second report became the basis for the government's decision to compensate only those APB workers who have developed cancer.
The majority of the former APB workers, who have illnesses other than cancer, have been left to seek compensation through the tortuously slow workers' compensation system.
Interviewed on ABC Radio National's Background Briefing program on April 18, Harper described as "a cop-out" the second report's refusal to recognise that the non-cancer illnesses could have been produced by expose to 2,4,5-T. "I think it's socially unjust, and I think that it is an inappropriate use of science", Harper said.
From Green Left Weekly #580.
Wednesday, March 31, 2004
By Chris Latham
PERTH — On March 12, the Western Australian state executive of the Australian Education Union (AEU) announced that its members had voted to accept the government's certified agreement (CA) offer.
The government offer includes a 9.9% wage increase over three years and improvements in a number of working conditions such as reduced class sizes in some schools. Of the 8776 AEU members who voted on the offer, 58% voted to accept, while 42% voted against.
The number who voted represents about two thirds of those who participated in the AEU's one-day strike on November 18.
On March 12, WA AEU branch president Mike Keely said that Premier Geoff Gallop's Labor government had done "serious damage" to itself as a result of its contemptuous attitude to the teachers' CA campaign. He called on the government "to start treating teachers with more respect".
Instead, that same day the government launched a new attack on WA's 20,000 public school teachers, when the recently established College of Teachers announced that it would establish a minimum dress code for teachers.
Education minister Alan Carpenter claimed that it was necessary to institute a dress code because "too many teachers" were wearing "thongs and jeans". Carpenter told ABC TV's Stateline program "there is a real struggle going on to maintain confidence in public education. People have been taking their kids out and putting them into non-government schools."
Carpenter's comments make it clear that the government is keen to distract attention from the real cause of declining conditions in the state school system — inadequate funding — by attributing the loss of public confidence to the behaviour of public school teachers — the very people who are holding the system together.
From Green Left Weekly #576
Tuesday, February 24, 2004
By Chris Latham
Metropolitan train drivers voted on February 13 to strike as part of their campaign for a new enterprise agreement. The Industrial Relations Commission (IRC) later that day ordered the workers to return to work. However, most workers did not return to work until the morning of February 16.
The walkout was prompted by the failure of the Western Australian Labor government's Public Transport Authority (PTA) to provide the union with the full text of its enterprise agreement offer prior to the stop-work meeting, Bob Christison, Rail, Train and Bus Union (RTBU) state secretary, told Green Left Weekly.
Christison said another reason for the workers' decision to strike was that they had received two letters the previous week, which they considered to be "threatening and intimidatory". "Those letters came from the minister for infrastructure and the acting chief executive officer of the PTA, and that further inflamed the situation", Christison said.
Christison said the union has been forced into industrial action over the past four months by the WA government's attempt to restrict public sector workers' wage increases to 9% over three years.
The government has offered a 6.9% pay rise over two years, which the union says is acceptable. However, RTBU is also attempting to regain working conditions lost in previous agreements, the most important being that workers receive days off in lieu when they work on public holidays, and that there be a cap on the number of journeys (or distance travelled) that train drivers work in a day. The RTBU has demanded that the pay rise be backdated to October 1, as the old agreement expired on September 30.
The union is also attempting to protect train guards' rosters. When the PTA first employed guards, they were rostered to shifts of between eight and 10 hours. Part-time guards filled the gaps with shifts of approximately six hours per day, five days a week.
Nine months ago, the PTA moved to shorten full-time workers' minimum shift and stop employing part-time workers. In response, the RTBU demanded that full-time workers' shifts be a minimum of eight hours. The PTA rejected this demand on the morning of the February 13 stop-work meeting.
The next flashpoint in the dispute will be the fate of drivers who failed to return to work prior to February 16. Although the IRC has indicated that it is unlikely that action will be taken against the RTBU, the PTA is threatening to sack workers who failed to work their rostered shifts.
From Green Left Weekly #572.
Wednesday, February 11, 2004
By Chris Latham
On January 29, John Kobelke, minister for Consumer and Employment Protection, released Restoring Fairness, Balance and Certainty: Workers' Compensation Reforms. The document's introduction states that it is the final stage of checking before the legislation is submitted to parliament.
The state Labor government has argued that the amendments will provide workers with improved access to benefits, injury management and greater legal protection. However, the legislation has made limited advances in protecting workers' rights.
The cap on weekly benefit payments will be increased to two-times average weekly earnings, from one-and-half. This payment will be reduced by 15% after eight weeks; it is presently reduced after four weeks.
Weekly benefit payments will still be limited. For workers with permanent total incapacity, the maximum prescribed amount can be extended up to $228,0000, up from $50,000.
The prescribed amount is the total amount available for any injury; if an injured worker dies then his or her dependents receive the prescribed amount, minus any weekly payments already received.
The amendments propose reintroducing lawyers into the whole system (rather than simply during final appeals) and the creation of a new Workers' Compensation Dispute Resolution Authority, which will oversee a process of conciliation conferences and arbitration.
Under the existing legislation, "injury management" — the process by which injured workers return to work — was voluntary, and only vocational rehabilitation was required. Labor's amendments would require large employers to develop their own policy and procedures for injury management and encourage insurers to provide resources for smaller companies to develop these as necessary.
Labor also proposes that injured workers be legally required to participate in injury management and rehabilitation activities. Failure to do so could result in the stoppage of payments.
While workers should have the option of returning to work, and employers be legally required to make arrangements to facilitate this process, Labor's amendments are not aimed at giving workers greater options. Instead, they are aimed at saving employers and insurers money by compelling injured workers to participate in attempts to return to work, and allowing an earlier reduction in weekly compensation payments.
Labor proposes to maintain the "two-gate" system for access to common law introduced by the state Coalition government in 1999. Under this system, injured workers assessed to have a "whole person impairment" (WPI) of greater than 25% (currently the threshold is 30%) are eligible to receive uncapped compensation payments.
For workers assessed to have a "serious impairment" of between 15% and 25% compensation is capped at a maximum of $275,000. Labor's updated amendments maintain its previous position to exclude workers' secondary and consequent impairment, including psychological impairment, in assessing WPI. This is aimed at reducing workers' access to civil damages.
The proposed amendments will extend the deadline for seeking common law damages to 12 months, extendable by an additional six months.
Workers with a serious impairment will also no longer lose their entire statutory benefit. Instead, all coverage of medical and other expenses will cease and weekly payments will be reduced to 70%, then to 50% after three months and cease after six months.
As common law damages are reduced by the amount of weekly benefits that the worker has already received, the phasing down of benefit payments and ending of coverage of medical expenses can only be interpreted as intended to dissuade injured workers from making common law claims.
From Green Left Weekly #570
Wednesday, January 28, 2004
WA teachers to vote on new agreement
By Chris Latham
On January 16, the Western Australian branch of the Australian Education Union indicated that it will recommend acceptance of a new offer negotiated between the AEU and the state education department for a certified agreement (CA).
While the new offer gives some staff wage increases of up to 14% over three years, this applies predominantly to teachers in administrative positions; the majority of teachers will receive 9.2% over three years, only a slight increase of the original offer of 9% and well short of AEU's claim of 30%.
However, throughout the campaign the AEU executive had said it was willing to accept a lower wage rise in return for movement on other key concerns of members. These included the time allocated to duties other than teaching (DOTT) for primary teachers, class sizes and measures to encourage the retention of graduate teachers in the public education system.
The new offer will increase DOTT for primary teachers by 20 minutes in 2005, and commits the department to make further increases in the next and future CAs to move towards equity with secondary teachers.
The offer also allows for reduction in class sizes to 28 students for year 8 and year 9 classes in 30 schools, adding to the 45 high schools included in the 2000 CA. Similar class reductions will occur for years 4-7 in 200 primary schools over 2004 and 2005.
The offer also provides for reductions in the teaching loads for lower level administrative staff.
A January 16 AEU press release stated that the executive "considers that this agreement delivers an acceptable response to members' concerns about working conditions including class sizes".
However, a number of rank-and-file AEU members have told Green Left Weekly that they felt that these gains may not outweigh the concession made on wages, particularly considering the industrial activity taken by AEU members, including the half-day and full-day stoppages in September and November.
They noted that a number of the elements that are now seen as acceptable by the executive in the new offer, particularly primary DOTT, have not moved forward on the department's September offer.
AEU members will vote on the new CA in the early weeks of first term, which begins on February 2.
From Green Left Weekly #568.
Wednesday, January 21, 2004
By Chris Latham
Train drivers on Perth's metropolitan rail-lines stopped work for four hours on January 11 to discuss the Rail, Tram and Bus Union's campaign for a new enterprise agreement. RTBU rail division secretary Bob Christison told Green Left Weekly that 65% of train drivers who are union members attended the stop-work meeting.
The RTBU claim calls for a wage rise of 20% over two years compared to the government's offer of 6.5% over the same period. In addition to the wage rise, the RTBU's log of claims is aimed at improving working conditions. Two key issues that have emerged during the campaign are workers' toilet breaks and the number of guards on night trains.
The timing of drivers' toilet breaks has become an issue due to a number of safety incidents at stations and railway crossings. When these incidents occur, trains can be heldup for an extended time and drivers do not have access to toilets. Consequently, in September last year, the RTBU directed drivers to take toilet breaks prior to beginning a section, rather than at the end of it. The Public Transport Authority, however, demanded the RTBU lift the directive.
When the union refused, the authority sought orders from the WA Industrial Relations Commission to end the practice and threatened to suspend enterprise bargaining negotiations. The authority has opposed breaks prior to journeys because it claims that on a number of occasions it has delayed train departures. Christison told GLW that one driver was quizzed about her toilet breaks. In response the RTBU held stop work meetings on November 25.
The RTBU members are pushing for increased guard numbers on night trains, to resolve concerns over public safety. Currently, two guards travel on all trains after 7pm, but as Christison told the January 13 West Australian, trains "could be left without a guard if a passenger became unruly and required an escort to the nearest station".
On January 11, the union implemented work bans directing drivers to stop trains if guards leave the train. If these bans are still in place on January 26, it is possible that there will be disruption to the fireworks event that day, which is Perth's biggest single-day public transport load.
From Green Left Weekly #567.