Workers tell of threats, bullying and the death of a mate
At POAGS Brisbane, workers were being stood over for wearing stickers reading: “I won’t be stood over”.
Delegates and safety representatives were continually threatened with the sack. Emotions were running high as the union and management went eyeball to eyeball.
Stories of threats and bullying from the bosses at Fisherman Island, Brisbane, were widespread.
And the workforce was still in shock over the death of 31-year-old Brad Gray.
It was change of shift, Saturday, 3pm February 20. Safety delegate Earl Jones had just turned up for work.
“I’d just walked into the smoko room and put my lunchbox in the fridge when one of the clerks rushed in telling me Brad had been run over by a forklift. “I jumped straight into one of the utes and went down. Some of the guys were working on Brad. But he was pretty much gone when I got there from what I could tell.”
Brad Gray was working the gangway on the flag of convenience vessel Pacific Explorer when he was struck by a 12 tonne forklift and crushed under its wheels. Earl made sure Joe who had been driving the forklift was all right. “He was in total shock. His face was blank.” The job stopped at POAGS, but not at neighbouring Patrick Bulk and General. Brett Membrey was the Patrick delegate on the shift:
“We were asked to go out to work in sight of a guy getting CPR,” said Brett. “We had full view of the blanket getting thrown over him from 50-60 metres away. It’s etched in my memory probably for the rest of my life.” Brett later emailed the company in disgust:
“Please understand that this email is written with emotion and compassion which your company showed none today by directing the work group out to work as a man lay dying on the wharf – ambulance sirens ringing in the background...
“I am totally disgusted by the way that the whole process eventuated. As the shift manager said as we spoke of this man’s last minutes of life, ‘Oh just do the plate. It’s four moves, then pontoons have to be moved and then you can standby.”
The next morning MUA National Secretary Paddy Crumlin issued a press release: “Tragic work death highlights urgent need for safety laws”. It read in part:
“As the family of dock worker Brad Gray mourn, co-workers and the Maritime Union of Australia are demanding overdue action to prevent a repeat of the fatality…”
“For the past two years we have been working for nationally coordinated regulation to underpin waterfront safety but now call for the urgent intervention by Safe Work Australia to review the package of Commonwealth and State/NT law and practice to achieve a national approach to stevedoring OHS”, said National Secretary Paddy Crumlin.
“Brad’s death will mark a stepping up of the campaign to see safety at last taken seriously,” he said.
“The stevedoring companies have not adequately responded as an industry to the previous deaths and serious injuries. They’ve pushed for self regulation rather than prescriptive legislation,” said the MUA’s Assistant National Secretary Warren Smith. POAGS Brisbane stayed shut for the weekend, but on Monday the union and management were again in dispute. It almost turned physical.
“The company somehow expected it would be business as usual,” said Warren. “They intended on working from 6am spanned till 8am for a 12 hour shift.
Workers who had fought to keep Brad alive were rostered Monday to 12-hour shifts with no intervening counselling.
“We met with the labour who determined they would remain on site but refuse to work until bona fide safety issues were rectified,” he said. “Issues like bullying, harassment and intimidation which is rife at POAGS in Brisbane.”
Queensland Branch officials and the Assistant National Secretary stopped the job.
One of the workers, Murray Dakin, a tribal elder of Maori descent asked to carry out a traditional ceremony at the spot where Brad died. Branch Secretary Mick Carr put it to the members and it was unanimously agreed. But not by the bosses.
“Management tried to stop us all going down there,” said Warren. “But in the end as we walked past them they decided to participate.” Murray led a slow march of around 100 workers to the site of the accident to bless the site. Workers from AAT and Patrick joined in and DPW terminal machinery ground to a halt in a mark of respect. A minute’s silence was observed around the waterfront in Sydney and other ports. The union then met with management.
What followed was a two hour-long emotional meeting. Despite the tragic circumstances it turned into a physical confrontation, said Mick. “I had to physically separate the shift manager attacking (MUA member) Steve Cumberlidge,” said Warren. “It was unprovoked and a disgrace and reflected the stand over tactics of management in Brisbane.”
The meeting broke up and from that point senior national management excluded all local managers from the talks. All the while the labour stood by and one of the vessels was subcontracted to Patrick.
“We insisted management talk to the members,” said Warren. “They agreed to front around 80 of our workers who did not miss the mark in telling them what they thought needed to be done”. Finally after 10 hours of talks the union and management worked out a package to go to the members.
It included a new program to eliminate bullying and harassment on the job, a survey of job fatigue and the work environment, a skills review to stop management downgrading as a means of intimidating and punishing delegates, working radios on site at all times, new ATT vans, a labour review, three new first aid points and new first aid equipment.
As well management agreed not to dock members’ wages for the time they did not work due to the fatality. It was agreed that wages for members would be paid and the workers decided that the wages for Monday 22 ($50,000) would be paid into the account of Brad Gray’s wife as a contribution from his workmates.
The workforce unanimously voted to return to work at around 3.30pm.
But those who witnessed a workmate die were deeply affected. Brett describes the aftermath as an emotional and morbid time. For Earl it was a double tragedy. He’d witnessed the death of a mate when he was just 19.
“It was down the hold of a ship up in Gladstone. A good friend was crushed between the side of the ship and a bundle of aluminum ingot. Seeing Brad lying there brought all that flooding back. Then seeing his wife and baby at the funeral – it’s a terrible thing.
“After Brad’s death and Nick’s soon after, it really rams it home. It’s made me a lot more passionate about safety.”
Earl says he is a prime example of being discriminated against for being outspoken about safety and other issues.
“As soon as I became an active delegate it started,” he said. “And it’s been ongoing ever since.”
Earl was downgraded last year after a workplace incident. The union is now challenging this in the industrial courts. “It’s affected my salary, my family. They think they’re just having a go at an individual but it affects a whole lot more people than they think.”
Like Earl, Brett Membrey too has lost loved ones on the wharves. His father-in-law, straddle reefer attendant James Carnes was killed at East Swanson dock Melbourne in 1990.
“With any incident – fatality or workplace injury – there’s a whole network of people affected,” he said. “People at work, families at home. Guys have problems for the rest of their lives. That’s what happens.
“I want the company to listen to us when we take a safety issue to them instead of saying ‘oh well we’ll do a JSA next time a ship comes in’ – to deal with it then and there because next time it may be too late.”
Bad Gray leaves a widow, Lauren and 17-month-old son, James.