Warren Smith Op-Ed: Wharfies Battle For Right To Work Wafely

Deaths on the waterfront can be prevented, but not if the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry and the big stevedores have their way.

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The fact is, wharfies are still 14 times more likely to die on the job than the average Australian worker.

The Maritime Union of Australia is determined change that. 

For more than five years the union has been campaigning for a national stevedoring code of practice to ensure safety standards are boosted. However, industry groups  are arguing the draft code is too prescriptive and too costly.

From the union’s viewpoint, the draft code simply clarifies what Australian law already requires, setting out recommendations and suggestions for how to comply. Industry argument about additional costs arising from the introduction of a code are deceptive, because there won’t be any. The debate is really about employers pre-emptively fighting potential restrictions on their ability to reduce safety-critical roles to make future savings.

The Maritime Union of Australia has welcomed the principles embedded in the draft code because they reflect international best practice.  Industry groups have been at best obstructionist and at worst downright heartless.

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[Picture: Greg Fitzgibbon]  

Just a day after the death of Newcastle wharfie Greg Fitzgibbon last September, Shipping Australia, which represents foreign shippers along with stevedoring companies Patrick, QUBE and DP World,  tried to tear up the draft code. This was an incredible mark of disrespect to wharfies at a time when they were mourning the death of a comrade.

Union members responded en masse, staging major national rallies around the country, with Greg Fitzgibbon’s two daughters Georga and Taylor bravely leading the Sydney march to highlight the importance of this code, to put a stop to deaths on the waterfront.

Today, wharfies around the country will be doing the same, targeting those business groups who are trying to undermine safety standards in their workplaces.

One of the points that industry groups have decided to target is the hatchman position. These workers – the eyes and ears of the crane driver – stand on the deck of the ship, directing the driver and warning of safety hazards. Every crane operation in Australia is required to have such a position, yet for some reason they now think the maritime sector should be exempt from existing crane safety provisions.

Wharfies, dockers and longshore workers around the world use a hatchman. All regard it as a primary safety position. 

In Australia the hatchman position already exists so no extra people would be engaged as a consequence, except where employers disregard the law.

Likewise, their opposition to the election of health and safety reps – something currently included in the  laws of every state and territory – harks back to a ridiculous 19th-century view of safety.

Australian stevedores and Shipping Australia are not just lobbying against this code, they are lobbying against every Australian worker’s  rights under existing safety legislation. They are arguing for a reduction in safety protections in a dangerous sector.

This debate shouldn’t be about costs, it should be about people’s lives. All workers have a right to come home safe to their families, and we make absolutely no apology to these employers and business lobbyists for refusing to cave to demands that make a dangerous workplace more dangerous.