26/11/2009 - 00:00

Where’s the equity in workplace laws?

26/11/2009 - 00:00


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The resources sector is preparing for an upswing in union activity.

I ALWAYS find it amazing that, if bullying and monopolistic practices are considered so terrible, unions are allowed to engage in such activity.

The contradiction is amazing.

The resources sector is bracing for all sorts of mayhem and ridiculous claims from unions at many different levels.

Take for instance the Maritime Union of Australia and its recent threat to hold the oil and gas industry to ransom for better pay and conditions.

If any corporation tried this sort of threat the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission would take it to the cleaners.

The MUA oversees one of Australia’s most protected species. Our seamen have proved so uncompetitive that few ply the world’s trade routes. Worse, though, is that Australia is forced to deal with the remnants of this sector for its coastal shipping needs – including servicing the oil and gas sector.

Of course, the international nature of shipping has allowed cheap labour to end the possibility of decent wages beyond those who hold responsibility on board. And, at a domestic level, restrictive laws have worked the other way.

Here, people are paid silly amounts of money, often for doing very little or nothing at all.

I recall hearing a story from someone who was on board a Japanese ship hired to operate in these waters by the oil and gas sector. Because it was Australian waters it had to have an Australian crew.

But the ship owners didn’t have faith that Australians could operate the vessel, so the local sailors became a shadow crew for the Japanese – so much for Aussie sailors’ special skills.

Not only, I was told, did the Australian seamen get paid huge sums for doing nothing, but they were unfriendly to their Japanese counterparts. Nice to have such people cooped up on a boat with you for weeks on end.

In no way should such practices or behaviour be tolerated in a modern country. If certain minimum wages and conditions need to be maintained, so be it, but restricting who can work and operate in any field based on arbitrary reasons such as union membership is antiquated and damaging. Allowing them to hold an industry to ransom is wrong.

It is just rent seeking, which is so abhorred when done by corporations.

It is time that employee behaviour was governed by the same laws as employers have to deal with.

West watch

I HAVE become a bit of a watcher of The West Australian, so forgive me if I indulge too much in this fascination.

Last week, I attended an event put on by that newspaper publisher offering up Leighton chief Wal King as the speaker.

With a bit of luck I was placed near the VIP table in the centre, not that I needed to see the key players to try to come to the conclusion that a masterful game of woo the client was going on.

Watching the event unfold, it dawned on me that this was just what WA Newspapers Holdings chairman Kerry Stokes would have loved; either that or it was just plain coincidence.

In delivering his speech, which was interesting and bullish on WA, Mr King revealed his organisation – which includes John Holland and Thiess – is one of the world’s biggest buyers of Caterpillar equipment.

So there was a great connection to Mr Stokes, who owns the yellow goods franchise here and in northern China. Arguably, Mr Stokes – represented on the day by Peter Gammell – may have used his considerable influence to attract Mr King to speak. That is a possibility, though generally influence goes the other way, with the client being the one who has it.

With so much happening over here, as the speaker suggested, it would not have hurt Mr King to be voicing his opinion in front of a big WA audience, so clearly a media connection is a good one to have.

The connections went full circle when Woodside Petroleum CEO Don Voelte took the podium to offer a vote of thanks. While that was one of the more amusing efforts I’ve seen (see below), it was worth noting the additional links this created.

Oil and gas producers are important customers of Leighton, especially with so many big projects on the horizon, so maybe Mr Voelte was able to pull the strings to get Mr King along? Mr Voelte is, of course, on the board of WAN, so therefore we see the completed circle of interests involved in this event.

The only thing missing was a Channel Seven ‘personality’ to MC the event instead of The West’s editor Brett McCarthy.

As I said it may all just be coincidence, but it’s certainly a happy one for all involved. Even WAN shareholders couldn’t complain, as the luncheon appeared busy with, presumably, paying customers.

Voelte unplugged

JUST to set the record straight, I wasn’t paying to attend that lunch but went along as a guest of Woodside.

And, if the story above looks like a case of biting the hand that feeds, I have to give due credit to Don Voelte for orchestrating a memorable moment at the event.

In giving the vote of thanks, Mr Voelte intimated that he had intended a fairly traditional thank you until he saw media coverage of his subject quoted at length defending his own pay packet by blaming American CEOs who created salary inflation.

Readers might remember Mr King said something like this when questioned about his remuneration recently.

“About all I can say to you is that it won’t be any high-flying American parachuted in at outrageous salaries that make mine look like chicken feed, stay for two years and fill up the jumbo jet and leave.”

“I think all they in fact have done is ratchet up the salaries for guys like me. They’ve parachuted in, told us what a crappy country we have and how we’re all so dopey, we don’t know what we’re doing, sort it all out and get a big loan. It’s true.”

Mr Voelte, an American CEO, took great delight in repeating some of these statements, reading them out at length and leaving his audience to wonder just where he was heading with this slow-mo skewering.

It was great theatre.

In a memorable moment as far as business lunches go, Mr Voelte wound up his fun by springing a surprise gift for Mr King, presenting him with a toy jumbo jet complete with a $US1 attached to it.

It was the kind of good humour perhaps only someone from the demand side could enjoy, but it was certainly a refreshing change from the usual humdrum.




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