Craig Harrison: Time to listen to the port workers on the frontline


The Ports of Auckland has been in the news recently, for all the wrong reasons.

Following the delayed release last month of the health and safety report ordered by the Mayor of Auckland, there has been a strong reaction.

The report spelt out what had gone wrong at the Ports. That information has been
widely discussed. CEO Tony Gibson said it made him feel sick. This is nothing compared to how the families of those killed and injured at the ports feel.

His comment that he did not know what was happening at the port under his watch is a damning indictment – but also, in our view, untrue. It is not credible for Tony Gibson to remain in his role as CEO.

But some seek to protect those at the top from accountability.

Michael Barnett of the Auckland Business Chamber (NZ Herald, April 7) insinuates the problem at the Ports of Auckland is the bad attitude of the Maritime Union and its members. His comments are deeply troubling.

Barnett claims the Maritime Union is “weaponising health and safety” (whatever this means).

The problem is three people are dead because the Ports of Auckland management did not do their job. In Barnett’s world, asking for accountability and a safe workplace is damaging the port’s reputation.

In our world, being killed and injured in preventable accidents is the damage.

Why would you entrust those responsible for a disastrous situation to fix it?

Let’s deal in the facts – about the efforts the Maritime Union has gone to promote health and safety at Ports of Auckland.

As far back as 2012, the Maritime Union opposed new rosters at the Ports of Auckland on the basis of health and safety.

A new Collective Employment Agreement was entered into on the basis there would be a Fatigue Risk Management Plan.

In 2018, a determination from the Employment Relations Authority sets out that POAL did not follow its own Hours of Work policy as part of this. Following on, as noted in the recent council report, POAL’s own policy requires quarterly Fatigue Risk meetings by a committee that includes Maritime Union representatives.

The last minuted meeting was March 2, 2018.

When LaBoom Dyer, a 23-year-old straddle driver and father, died in 2018 the cause of his death was found to be influenced by a culture of so-called “productivity” – or dangerous speed ups.

At the sentencing for the Ports of Auckland, Judge Evangelos Thomas noted a “systemic failure to install and maintain a culture of safety and compliance”. In the summary of facts from the court, one of the breaches of duty that POAL itself accepted was the performance bonus which incentivised speed.

The Maritime Union opposed the performance bonus at the time, for obvious reasons.

Just last week, the wife of a MUNZ member badly injured at the Ports of Auckland in 2014 went on the record about her experiences with the CEO.

The worker in question, her husband, fell from a ship before being rescued from the water. His survival was a miracle but his injuries were severe and life-changing.

The worker and his wife were promised things would change, and the worker would have a major role in improving health and safety practices in the port. It never happened.

Last year, our members had the horror of another workmate killed.

A meeting was held immediately between the Maritime Union and the CEO, where he accepted he needed to work with the union on health and safety. Nothing happened.

When we are told the CEO accepts full responsibility, the Maritime Union says accepting full responsibility does not mean getting a second, or third, or fourth chance, when it is our lives at stake.

To browbeat workers into “trusting” the people who oversaw these catastrophes is not acceptable.

Maritime workers at Ports of Auckland are out there day and night, 24/7, putting themselves on the line to deliver for New Zealand.

Due to a series of management failures, they are having to deal with a massive backlog of cargo and are under enormous pressure.

The Maritime Union wants to get health and safety at the ports right. We want to work with management to get it right. We have to work with management. But management has not listened to the concerns of workers. This isn’t opinion. It’s fact.

Management has to change. Starting at the top.

Workers are not going to be told to sit down and be quiet anymore. While we are killed and hurt, those responsible for our safety walk away or remain in well-remunerated roles.

It is not Mr Gibson, or Mr Barnett, who suffer the consequences of trusting the wrong people.

To be sure, this problem is not simply at Ports of Auckland.

That is why the Maritime Union is also calling for a national inquiry into port health and safety – and corporate manslaughter laws that provide an incentive for managers and directors to do the right thing.

If we are going to fix the Ports of Auckland, workers need a place at the top table, and our voices need to be listened to.

• Craig Harrison is the National Secretary of theMaritime Union of New Zealand.

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