AFR: MUA pushes for local labour deal in oil, gas sector

[Australian Financial Review, 26 February 2013]

The militant maritime union is pushing for unprecedented guarantees that companies servicing the massive offshore oil and gas sector will only employ local workers under new four-year workplace agreements.

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[Picture: WA Branch Secretary Chris Cain]  

The Maritime Union of Australia’s West Australian branch is also demanding guarantees about the training of young workers that include payments to a joint union-employer training fund and recruitment pro­cesses that use union data systems.

The demands on the 15 employers that service the North-West Shelf, plus the Gorgon and Wheatstone gas projects, come after the Gillard ­government agreed to reduce the use of foreign workers under section 457 visas.

Construction unions will also stage a major rally in Perth on Thursday calling for tougher rules on local content in major resource projects, a step encouraged but not mandated under the government’s recent industry and innovation statement.

The MUA’s WA secretary, Chris Cain, argued on Monday that guarantees on local jobs rather than pay rises were the top priority in the enterprise negotiations with the offshore service oil and gas companies.

“It’s not about money, it’s about Australian jobs and training,” Mr Cain told The Australian Financial Review. “We want local jobs on the docks and at sea.”

The MUA’s claims include employers signing a Federal Court deed that prohibits them from using foreign labour during the life of the enterprise agreements. Critics argue this would only cover employers that were parties to the agreement and would encourage the use of foreign ships.

But the employers, represented by the Australian Mines and Metals Association, argue that the MUA has made an ambit claim for wage increases of 26 per cent over four years, plus higher allowances.

“We don’t for a minute believe what the MUA are saying, that the pay increases are going to be moderate,” AMMA chief executive Steve Knott said. “The total employment cost uplift that they are proposing . . . is quite substantial.”

“But it’s also about union control. The union wants to control who gets engaged, they want to control where the training money goes. They want to control the bargaining process.”

The enterprise agreements – involving employers such as Total Marine Services, Mermaid Marine, Farstad and Tidewater – cover hundreds of seafarers servicing offshore oil and gas and the outcomes usually flow through to officers and engineers.

In 2010, the MUA won pay increases of 30 per cent spread over less than four years, while allowances for those who also worked on offshore construction project rose from $90 a day to $215 a day.

Industry sources said the current base pay of integrated ratings ranged between $122,477 and $143,298 a year, based on a roster cycle of working five weeks on and five weeks off, plus employer superannuation ­payments of about 13.5 per cent and a 20 per cent loading for casuals.

Workplace Relations Minister Bill Shorten is due to address the MUA’s WA conference in Fremantle on Tuesday. Mr Cain is using the conference to push the case for militant unionism, arguing that his membership has grown by 470 per cent to about 5000 over a decade while winning big improvements in pay and conditions.

He predicted that increased activism by his union before the WA election on March 9 and the federal poll on September 14 would see a “lot of political pressure” brought to bear.

“But politicians have never got us a wage rise or better conditions … politicians have a role to play, but we do what our members tell us to do. We’re a rank-and-file union."

Under the changes to 457 visas, employers have to show a genuine skills shortage, pay market rates to ensure local workers are not undercut and meet tougher English language requirements.

Opposition immigration spokesman Scott Morrison said the government’s visa changes were a “ready, fire, aim process”. He called for evidence of rorts cited by Immigration Minister Brendan O’Connor.

“Brendan O’Connor is either passing a motion of no confidence in his predecessor, or he is engaged in shameless pandering to the union movement,” Mr Morrison said.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard defended the tighter rules on Monday. “Each and every day we’ll always put Australian jobs first, and that’s what we’ve done in saying we would further crack down on inappropriate use of 457 visas,’’ she said.

The Construction Forestry Mining and Energy Union blasted the opposition, saying the figures revealed “obvious abuse” the 457 visa system.

The national secretary of the CFMEU’s construction division, Dave Noonan, said 68,000 jobs were lost in construction in the year to August 2012, while the number of 457 workers in the industry had risen by 38 per cent. “Many of our members struggle to find work, yet we are told that there aren’t enough workers to fill jobs,” he said. “The statistics prove our case that Australian workers are missing out.”

[The Australian Financial Review]