The Australian wharves fell silent on April 7. At 10am towering cranes, frenetic straddles and gantries were switched off. In Adelaide, Fremantle, Melbourne, Darwin, Devonport, Brisbane and Botany, ships sat idle for one hour as Australian waterside workers walked off the job.
Outside the Greek Orthodox church in the western Sydney suburb of Hurlstone Park, two buses unloaded around 200 stevedoring workers from the Port Botany wharves. Many wore their yellow safety jackets – on their sleeves the words ‘best be safe’.
Nikolaos Fanos, 49, waterside worker, husband and father died tragically on the night shift at Patrick Port Botany at around 7pm, Palm Sunday, March 28.
Ports were closed for stop work meetings to call on the government for a national safety code to be enforced on the docks.
Nick was the second waterside worker to die in the space of a month. The 6th in six years. Tributes came in from around the world (see opposite). And Nick’s death made headlines.
‘Dockers walk off job over worker’s death’, ABC News Darwin reported. ‘Wharfie farewelled in Sydney funeral’, said the ABC News broadcast. The Greek Reporter headlined: ‘Wharfies to stop work for one hour in memory of Greek Nick Fanos’. ‘Tribute for worker’ wrote The Age. ‘Gillard promises work safety laws’ The West Australian reported.
On the day of Nick’s funeral his family and community filled the church. Workmates stood outside – some with umbrellas, others in wet weather gear, some oblivious to the drizzle.
“I thought, mate, you know we don’t work in the rain,” said Mich-Elle Myers, former workmate and now national officer. “And sure enough it stopped.”
The funeral service was in Greek, but everyone there listened and understood.
You lose your workmate, you lose family and you don’t need anyone to translate that loss.
Mich-Elle had been called to the wharves that Sunday night with branch and national officials. She joined the others who waited by Nick’s side for an hour after his death.
“I was with him on his first day at work,” said Mich-Elle. “And I was with him on his last.”
The ambulance came and they got Nick down off the ship.
“None of us wanted to leave Nick by himself,” said Paul Keating, Patrick safety committee chair. “His mates stayed with him.”
Paul had been working a different gang when his team leader said he had to take him out. Something had happened.
“As I was driving down the wharf, I saw Matt’s gang walking in. I knew from the look on their faces it was something bad.”
Workmate Aaron Nable was on his straddle when he heard the bang.
“Matty came over the radio calling for an ambulance. I could hear the desperation in his voice. It made my blood run cold. I was coming out of the reefer area after picking up a box to drop under the hook. I could see someone lying on the ship. He wasn’t moving. I sensed whoever it was they were in a bad, bad way.”
Aaron climbed down out of the straddle and ran up onto the ship.
"‘What’s going on’, I asked Matty. ‘It’s Nick. Nick’s been killed. He’s dead’.”
Nick Fanos had worked the docks for six years. He was renowned as a hard worker.
Matt Freestone was team leader for the gang working the containers on board the Vega Gotland, Flag of Convenience vessel.
Nick was team leader for the lashers, the workers who secure the boxes on the ship’s deck after they have been all lowered into place.
Once there had been also been a deckman on the ship, the down driver. It had been their job to oversee the whole operation, keeping everyone in communication by radio. But that job went in 1998. So as lashing was nearing completion Nick came over to check with Matty when the next bay would be ready.
Matt was walking down from the other end of the bay when the container struck Nick. He died within minutes.
“There’s no deckman, anymore,” said Paul Keating. “In some ways Nick was another casualty of the Patrick dispute.”
John the crane operator was at the top of the gangway. He wanted to see if Nick was all right.
“Matt said it was best he didn’t come up,” said Aaron. “I took him back down to the wharf. He was devastated. Shattered. I put my arm around him and kept telling him ‘It’s not your fault, mate’.”
Work stopped. The gangs all made their way to the amenity building. The delegate called the night shift not to come in and contacted the union.
“Nick was a hard worker – there was nothing he wouldn’t do for you,” said Paul. “He’d be the first to say ‘go in and have a cuppa’ – that type of bloke.
“Gangs on the waterfront become very close. It’s a bit like a family. We put our lives in each other’s hands. We live day in day out with each other, have socials three or four times a year, get together at the races or for a game of golf. It’s because of the union and the unique nature of the industry, the stuff we’re taught about our history, our culture,” said Paul.
“Nick’s family are from the wharves and have always been MUA members,” said Mich-Elle. “Nick joined on his first day.” His two uncles worked as waterside workers for many years. His brother also.
“The wharves are a big family and when we lose one of our own everybody feels it,” said Mich-Elle. “The place will never be the same.”
“We knew Nick for ever,” said Aaron. “Our gang and his gang run side by side. We’d follow each other. He was in
the sister gang. We’d work with him and eat with him.”
“Ours was a family type of gang. Billy our crane driver is Nick’s brother in law,” said Paul. “We’re in the same gang.
Bill’s son and Nick’s nephew Gerry are in same gang. I’m just glad they weren’t there on the night.”
But Nick’s nephew Spiro Tzouganatos was. He’d got a call and came in. Everyone tried to make it comfortable in the office for him. Bill Tsilimos sat with him. Spiro, a barrister has worked on asbestos cases for years. He was well known on the wharves where the killer dust had left a trail of death.
“Sister Mary arrived on the seafarers’ bus and we asked her to come in and speak to our members and console them,” said Paul. “We were all in shock. We couldn’t believe what had happened.”
The terminal shut for three days and nights as the union stood by the workers and demanded safe work practice and procedures were in place. Aaron, Paul, Matt and others in the gang took leave.
“It physically affects you,” said Paul. “I’m still getting my head around it. It affects my sleep awfully. We’ve all been keeping in touch with each other. It’s still very raw.”
It was bad for me, but I wasn’t up close. It was worse for the others in the gang who saw his face, felt his pulse,” said Aaron.
“Working on the wharves is a very dangerous job. Everyone’s got to slow down a bit. I’ve seen so many near misses on the waterfront since I’ve been here. You can only be lucky so many times. That night our luck ran out and Nick was killed. You know what they care about – they don’t care about us they care about profit.”
“The productivity bonus is unsafe,” said Paul. “It’s created an unsafe culture.
“We elect safety delegates every shift now,” he said. “There’s so many problems with flag of convenience ships we have to start somewhere. I’ve seen ships with no railings, faulty twist locks. The ship Nick died on was a poor design. The gap between the bays meant the crane operator had to swing one end of the container in, then the next.”
“Waterside workers labour in the most unique workplace in Australia,” MUA National Secretary Paddy Crumlin told the media gathered outside Nick’s funeral. “Every day of their lives they’re expected to go up the gangway of a foreign workplace — ships registered in Liberia, Panama, all over the world – 2nd world, 3rd world standards. No other Australian worker has to deal with that. Work can be especially dangerous on FoC ships. There’s not enough time to scout out where the danger spots are. There’s no information from the last port.”
“There’s much anger and frustration following the accident,” he said. “Some of Nick’s co-workers either saw Nick die first hand or the aftermath. This was a death that could have been avoided with a better safety culture and application of safe working practices and guidelines nationally with full enforceability.”
“If we’d had a regulated system would Nick have died?” asked Paul. “I don’t think so.” A WorkCover investigation, coronial and other inquiries are underway.