27/05/2014 - 04:55

Iron ore sector held to ransom

27/05/2014 - 04:55


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The potential strike action at Port Hedland has brought into sharp relief key workplace relations issues facing Australia.

Iron ore sector held to ransom

There are 14 tugboats that operate at Port Hedland. Each of them has three staff – an engineer, a master and a deckhand.

Those tugs and their 40 or so staff are responsible for iron ore exports worth about $100 million a day.

That gives the staff enormous leverage, which they are using in their current wage negotiations.

The Maritime Union of Australia is at the pointy end of this dispute but it’s not the only union involved.

The Australian Institute of Marine and Power Engineers represents the engineers, the Australian Maritime Officers Union looks after the masters, and the MUA represents the deckhands.

All three unions have been granted protected action ballot orders.

Only the MUA has ‘declared’ its ballot, which opens the potential for ‘protected industrial action’ for up to a week if negotiations on a new enterprise bargaining agreement are not resolved.

It’s a structure that revives memories of the 1970s and early 1980s, when the Arbitration Commission was the central body that handled industrial relations matters.

That was also the era when the Pilbara and other parts of the country were regularly brought to a standstill by strike action.

That was before the Hawke Labor government started a reform process that brought a more consultative, decentralised approach to settling wage claims and resolving workplace disputes.

It was also before a small group of business leaders, led by Robe River boss, the late Charles Copeman, pushed for more dramatic change.

Mr Copeman did more than any other individual to break union control of the Pilbara mining industry.

He was demonised at the time, yet his resolve laid the groundwork for workplace agreements that have boosted both worker productivity and worker incomes.

That prosperity is shared by the 40 workers on those Port Hedland tugboats, including the deckhands who earn about $160,000 a year yet work only 22 weeks annually – making them the highest paid in the towage industry in Australia, according to BHP Billiton.

The MUA is pursuing a pay rise of almost 10 per cent a year and an increase in annual leave.

Crucially, it is doing so without any link to improved productivity, which has been absolutely fundamental to the region’s growth over the past decade.

It is also pursuing these changes when businesses right across the state are seeking cost savings.

Clearly it is out of touch with current times, a point that Fortescue Metals Group chief executive Nev Power highlighted when he labelled the MUA the “most militant union in the nation”.

That’s a big call but possibly true, if only because the CFMEU has been reined in – to a degree – by the federal government agency Fair Work Building and Construction.

FWBC is the successor to the Australian Building & Construction Commission, which cracked down on union militancy and is likely to be revived by the Abbott government.

Perhaps its remit should be extended to the waterfront, because at the moment there is not much that employers can do to head off what would be a very costly and damaging strike.

As CCI chief executive Deidre Willmott said, “the most frustrating part of this situation is that action will be legal under the Fair Work Act”.

Exporters can apply to have protected strike action suspended on the grounds of significant harm as a third-party under section 426 of the Fair Work Act.

The Fair Work Commission has previously indicated it will only approve third-party suspension applications under circumstances where the strike will cause harm “of a more serious nature than merely suffering of a loss, inconvenience or delay”.

What does that mean in practice?

Do we rely on this centralised, legalistic process, or do we pursue legislative reform to ensure that this type of dispute does not arise?

That’s a rhetorical question.


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