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Speech: Hutchison Ports

Speeches in Parliament
Lee Rhiannon 11 Aug 2015

Senator RHIANNONĀ (New South Wales) (21:31): On Sunday, I joined the MUA family day and picket at port botany in support of sacked wharfies. Ninety-seven out of 224 workers at Hutchison's operations in both Brisbane and Sydney lost their jobs last week-that is 40 per cent of their workforce. At a time of growing unemployment the enormous stress this puts on the workers and their families is really unacceptable.

The strategy has been dubbed 'phoenix rising', and I understand that even the company is using that term. What has been widely reported and certainly what many of the workers were talking about on Sunday is that this is a strategy to bring in greater automation and to bring in automation without negotiation with the workforce. This is something that the Greens find abhorrent, and I certainly do personally.

When I gave my first speech in this place, one of the people who came to see me give my speech was my uncle. My uncle was a wharfie, as was my other uncle-Uncle Ray and Uncle Leon-so I feel doubly strongly when I see workers being treated in such a shocking way.

When I was young I remember my wharfie uncles going to work and seeing them taking their hook and then hearing the stories about the bull system. I remember how they described the bull system, and when I hear about how the body hire system works now, this appears to be part of the equation of where Hutchison wants to take their operations in Australia. It really does sound like attempting to turn back the clock to the appalling work conditions that prior to the Second World War, and coming out of the Second World War, wharfies were forced to operate under if they had any hope of getting a job.

Paul McAleer, the MUA Sydney branch secretary has said that there has been no genuine consultation with the MUA on this move by Hutchison. I understand that is how it is seen in Brisbane as well. There has been no question about the competitiveness of Hutchinson. Their profits come in billions of dollars, with their operations across so many different industry sectors. This theme about pushing to greater automation is coming up so often when you speak to people involved and when you read what is happening on our wharfs.

Mr McAleer has also said that the union is seeking a fair and objective process where all Labor data and modelling are put on the table to determine the true nature and scope of what is going on. Surely that is the reasonable way to go. If this Abbott government had any decency or commitment to working people in terms of their right to have a job and to have dignity and safety at work, it would at least be encouraging the company to be up-front about the situation for their workforce. But we are hearing nothing about that. What we are in fact seeing from Hutchison is a set of tactics that you can call nothing but confrontation.

Another comment that came up in the few hours I had the opportunity on Sunday to spend at Port Botany was, 'It's Patrick all over again'. And many of you would remember 1998 with the balaclavas, the dogs and the shocking attacks then on working people, wharfies, at our ports around the country.

Again, this is not something new. When you look at the history of working-class people in this country, these sorts of attacks are frequent, and they really are attacks by companies hell-bent on watering down and running down working conditions, so that they can increase their profits.

I think it is worth remembering when we talk about the comparison with Patrick that that ended with a High Court finding in favour of the union's case-that the company had attempted a workplace restructure to dismiss its unionised employees. Why do they want to weaken the union? Why do they want to run down working conditions? Again, it is about increasing their profits. And that is the key intent of the Abbott government with its continuing attacks on the union movement and why it has been so effectively silent in the appalling conditions that we have seen play out on workers on our waterfront in Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane over the past week.

When I was at Port Botany, a number of us spoke in support of the striking workers-Senator Doug Cameron, myself, representatives of a number of the unions, and the workers themselves. Angelo Gavrielatos, former AEU president, now working with the International Education Union, also spoke. In Brisbane there have been similar actions. Bob Carnegie, the Maritime Union of Australia Queensland state secretary, has spoken along similar lines. He had a similar experience with the management of Hutchison there. Bob has said that they involve themselves in meaningful talks about the mitigation of this problem until they show us problem our labour modelling data and behave like proper responsible corporate citizens. The unions have been very clear. They are just saying, 'We're ready to talk. We're ready to ensure that the work can continue but let us understand what the data it is with regard to the workplace what that modelling does show.'

Time and time again the comment was that what they were fighting for was justice and fairness. Surely that is something that any decent government would get behind, but again there is silence on that front. This is potentially a huge issue. Automation of our wharves would mean so much unemployment, so much dislocation.

Many Sydney unionists turned up on Sunday from the Electrical Trades Union, from the Australian Services Union and the Plumbers Union. It was certainly an enjoyable day but there was also a lot of uncertainty as people spoke about their feelings of job insecurity. That was obviously understandable. People are so uncertain about what their future holds.

Adam Bandt, the Greens member for Melbourne, has also taken up this issue. He has called on the government to amend the Fair Work Act so that unfair actions by employers in the future will not require the Fair Work Commission to issue orders against employees. That motion is now before the parliament. It has been seconded by Cathy McGowan and it calls on the government, as I said, to amend the Fair Work Act , so that the internationally recognised right to strike is protected and the Fair Work Commission is not required to issue orders against employees if their employer has acted unfairly and instigated a dispute, something which, when you consider what has happened at Hutchison, is obviously needed and again from a government that is always talking about reforming the fair work laws and how work places operate. That is something which a decent government, if they were true and concerned about jobs and working people, would pass, but we know that will not happen. We know they are just words from this government who are hell bent on running down our work places, making them more unsafe, increasing job security so that they can deliver for their constituents and what their constituents want is an easier run to make profits.

It was a very good day on Sunday but I left there to come to Canberra with great concern. I also want to share that the Greens New South Wales also passed a motion on the weekend indicating their support for the sacked wharfies and raising concerns about how the sacking was conveyed to them by email and text and indicating support for the MUA picket. Large numbers of Greens members are out on the picket on a regular basis. Finally that motion says:

The Greens New South Wales calls on Hutchison Ports to engage in discussions with the Maritime Union of Australia to the discuss proposed workplace changes at Hutchison and the reinstatement of the 100 sacked workers.
All they were asking for was to talk. Surely that is what should have happened before the workers were sacked but there has been no criticism from the government about those tactics. To share with you some of the comments that were made as I met a number of the operators, some of them were crane drivers. One of them had come from Adelaide after he lost his job there on the wharves and came to Sydney to pick up work. He explained about some of the workers he had been with who had worked in Hong Kong ports in the Hutchison operations where some of their shifts went for 12 hours. They were sent up into the crane high above the ground with food for their meal and a bucket to go to the toilet, operating there for 12 hours. These are ruthless conditions and now this is a ruthless way of dismissing the workers.

The other comment that came up was that there was speculation of what the tactics were with Hutchison. The feeling was that it was a push for automation without negotiation. Part of that is relying on a minimal workforce that is not employed directly by Hutchison but by some body hire company. Body hire is an issue which comes up periodically. It has been used more frequently and is certainly another way that makes it very hard for working people in this country to gain a decent wage. The essential difference between an employee who works for someone else and if they are in a body hire company or what is often called an independent contractor, they are deemed as operating their own business whereas if they are an employee they are working for someone else. There is enormous significance in that. Employees are entitled to the benefits of the laws which are established for their protection. While those laws may have been weakened, there are still many of them in Australia and they are obviously very important for employees.

If you are no longer an employee, you are put out there as an independent contractor by some body hire company and the whole situation changes. This issue is very important because the integrity of our employment laws needs to be protected. They can be run down overnight. This is what Hutchison appears to be up to. If it removes workers, its own employees, and then uses a body hire company, those same workers could become independent contractors, losing so many benefits overnight. Just because somebody is called a contractor, that should not dictate that they be treated for legal purposes as such. I want to emphasise that point because in the times a head this will become more and more important. Just because somebody comes from a body hire company and have been designated as a so called independent contractor, that does not mean they are not an employee.

By engaging a contractor, a firm could be spared the costs of holiday and superannuation entitlements, insuring against work related injuries, exposure to unfair dismissal claims or severance pay. You can see why some companies move to use this form of operating. Also, having contractors operating in the workplace makes it much harder for unions. So, again, these companies can get a free ride to greater profits.

In my opening remarks I made reference to the bull system, which was a very ugly way the wharves used to operate. To get a job you lined up with often hundreds of fellow workers and a foreman would stand looking down on the men and pick out the ones who looked like big blokes, because in those days, there were no containers and you had to lug it on your back and it was tough, hard, dirty work. This system, which became known as the bull system, was something the wharfies and their unions fought very hard against. They fought to bring dignity to the workplace, to bring in rosters and to bring in what are called gangs-groups of workers-to work together, where the work was shared out in a fair and just way. Eventually that fight was won, and safety and workplace relations laws were brought to the workplace. But again we are facing that being run down.

Body hire is something that pops up in many industries. I find that often when you talk on these issues, people who favour how the companies operate are keen to misrepresent what one says. So I do want to say that I am not ruling out body hire and saying that there is no place for body hire. The use of body hire does have a role. Clearly, employers may sometimes have a genuine short-term need to top up their workforce. There are often peak production problems and unforeseen absences where workers need to be brought in at short notice. So there is a need in some instances for this to occur, and I wanted to put that on the record. But we know of so many examples in so many industries, particularly the building industry and increasingly now these days in the maritime industry, of this type of labour being used to make workers' jobs even more insecure.

When this debate came into parliament yesterday, Senator Doug Cameron asked Senator Abetz, the responsible minister, about it. Senator Abetz gave one of his usual replies. He really did not have anything useful to say, but you certainly got the message that he was in no way going to stick up for workers who had lost their jobs-and effectively again justifies sacking workers via a text message. In his comments he went on to make some very insulting remarks which he trots out periodically. He said that the MUA 'has the disgraceful history of even sabotaging our World War II effort and compromising the safety and security of Australian soldiers overseas.' Firstly, the MUA was not around in the Second World War-but those mistakes are made. Who he was referring to there were the wharfies.

Further, and this is absolutely shocking-Senator Abetz has sunk to such a low level-he was largely drawing on a book by Hal Colebatch. This just shows the narrative this government is desperate to push out there. This book won the Prime Minister's prize for Australian history. I will have to come back to this, because it really does need to be corrected on the record. The book is called Australia's secret war-and Colebatch gets it wrong time and time again in terms of the allegations that he made about the so-called sabotage. He bases his work on really just secondary sources. The only primary sources are the memories of some very elderly Second World War veterans who were describing events that occurred 60 years ago. He describes one incident about radar being interfered with, and he got the type of aircraft involved, the air force to which they belonged and even the incident that actually happened wrong. That has been well documented, and I look forward to coming back and setting out the case.

When the wharfies were working during the Second World War they contributed enormously to the Australian war effort. That was particularly shown by the wharfies at Port Kembla who refused to load pig iron to go to Japan that could have been used in bombs that could have come back to Australia. They actually took industrial action-very fine industrial action-to protect Australians. But, as well as doing that, they themselves contributed directly to the war effort. This needs to be put on the record. I am not going to go into Senator Abetz's history, but it is certainly very tempting when he is so insulting and so wrong by trying to further slur wharfies at a time when they are facing some real challenges, as indeed the whole country is with automation being stepped up. So I look forward to coming back to this important issue once again.

Senate adjourned at 21:51

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