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Ports of Auckland – time for change

Written By: - Date published: 8:47 am, March 31st, 2021 - 5 comments
Categories: auckland supercity, health and safety, local government, uncategorized, Unions, workers' rights - Tags:

Auckland Council has released the Ports of Auckland Independent Health and Safety Report and the recommendations are damning.  From OneAuckland:

Key recommendations of the CHASNZ report include:

  • requirements for the POAL chief executive to prioritise safety over productivity and profitability, improve communication and engagement with staff on health and safety, help change risk behaviours, and resource corrective actions

  • an increased focus on safety for Ports leaders and management

  • improving the relationship with the Maritime Union of NZ

  • improving trust and engagement between executive management and the frontline workforce about health and safety expectations

  • appointing a health and safety leader at POAL, reporting to the chief executive, to reset the Port’s approach to health and safety.

Mayor Phil Goff’s comments are also damning:

When someone goes to work, they should go back home to their families and loved ones. I have made it very clear to the Chair of the Ports that changes need to be made to the way the Ports run and it is my expectation that he and the board will hold management accountable for these changes. Council in turn will hold the board accountable.”

The report notes that there has been two deaths at the port in the past four years.  But there have actually been three port related debts.

Let us name them and acknowledge them:

  • Father-of-seven Palaamo Kalati, aged 31, a stevedore, sho was crushed to death by a container on a ship at the Fergusson Container Terminal
  • 23-year-old Laboom Midnight Dyer died after a straddle carrier he was driving tipped over.
  • Leslie Gelberger who was swimming and struck by a pilot boat and killed in 2017.

POAL pleaded guilty to a charge relating to the death of Dyer and was convicted and sentenced to a fine and reparation.

The court was told that he died after the straddle carrier he was driving tipped over and pinned him and caused fatal injuries.  The carrier had a “tip alarm” which emitted noise when the carrier was being driven in an unsafe manner.  Worksafe said there has been inadequate training on what the tip alarm signified.  Such was the need for speed some of the straddle drivers did not pay attention to the alarm.  There was also a bonus system to reward straddle drivers for a high “box rate” when moving containers and Dyer, who had a high tip alarm rate, had consistently received his bonuses.

The report itself is as dry an example of management speak as you can imagine.  It also shows its value system in this paragraph:

POAL do accept responsibility for their workplace culture and are working to improve it. The difficult relationship between Maritime Union of New Zealand (MUNZ) and POAL has, at times, hampered H&S improvement. For H&S to continue to improve at POAL, it is essential that all parties work collaboratively to support H&S

I have been following what has happened with the Ports of Auckland for the past decade.  And the difficult relationship is because POAL tried to get rid of the Union from the port and undermined the union at every step.  This post is based on a compilation of things that I have written during that time.

Looking back the agenda was clear:

  1. Deunionise the site or at least weaken the union.
  2. Get workers on new casual contracts where productivity and not safety are the prime goal.
  3. Rush through an automation process that was never properly implemented.

And the consequence of all this was to create a safety trap where workers’ lives were and are at risk.

Ports of Auckland has been on an anti union campaign for a long time.  Things were that bad a while ago money found its way to Cameron Slater to write anti union stories.

One Slater attack in particular still rankles.  Back in 2012 it appears that POAL leaked personal information about an employee whose wife was dying of cancer to Slater.  He then delighted at doxxing the employee and wondering why, as an example, the worker had been taking his accrued holidays to care for his wife.

The only description for this behavior is outrageous.  Allowing an employee time off while their wife is dying is not a generous gesture given by a benign employer.  It is the minimum that should be expected in a civilised society.  Them taking their own holidays off to care for their wife is their prerogative.  And then leaking of information about what was undoubtedly an extraordinarily stressful incident of someone’s life for industrial gain is nothing short of outrageous.

The Standard’s Eddie had a particularly colourful description of what happened:

The idiots running PoAL into the ground admitted without admitting that they gave the worker’s details to Slater/Lusk as a ‘direct response’ to the worker’s criticism of the bosses’ negotiating tactics. Yeah, because that’s how you provide a ‘direct response’ – by illegally leaking unrelated information to a scumblog.

POAL also engaged in a scorched earth effort to weaken the union so that out sourcing of jobs could happen at pace.  MUNZ Union National President Gary Parsloe said at the time:

The port company is planning to make our members redundant and contract out their jobs. This casualisation exercise is a direct attack on conditions of work and secure, permanent jobs.” “Families are being bloody destroyed. They would sooner be sacked or made redundant than to not know what’s happening.”

Len Brown and Auckland Council were asked to intervene.  Unfortunately Brown hid behind the corporate structure at the time and did nothing.  The Super City structure won and the workers lost. Local board members at the time, including the writer and interestingly the current Minister of Labour, issued this press release about POAL’s anti union tactics:

“This is an extraordinary situation and it is now clear that the Ports of Auckland management and Board are out of control and exposing the Auckland economy to enormous risk”, say the Board Members.

“On Wednesday the Court ordered a return to good faith bargaining and a halt to out-sourcing by the company. Yet on Thursday POAL insisted that they will still proceed with out-sourcing, and locked out the entire workforce.

It is our belief that they do not actually want bargaining to succeed and that good faith and the Local Governmant Act requirement to be a ‘good employer’ is being seriously breached by a Council owned company”

“Workers would also appear to be locked out prior to the legally allowable two week notice period. This means that POAL may be locking out in direct breach of the law. For Auckland’s port to be held back from being fully worked because of a possibly illegal action by the company is completely unacceptable”

“The situation has now spiralled completely out of control. The court provided an opportunity for a reasonable good-faith settlement to be reached, but POAL has intransigently chosen to go down the route of conflict”

A significant factor was that Council insisted that POAL should return a healthy financial return, 12% return on equity.  It is a publicly owned piece of infrastructure that facilitates economic activity.  The way I saw it financially POAL could break even but as long as it contributing to Auckland’s overall economic wellbeing this should not be of concern.  The greater good can mean that it’s profitability is not a priority.

And as a comparison in 2012 Chinese ports despite their lower wages returned on average 10.6% and Hong Kong listed port operators returned an average of 7.7%.

The results across the ditch were even worse.  Melbourne’s return on equity was 2.6%, Wellington’s was 2.9% and Sydney’s was 6.9%.

Moving on to 2015 POAL gave Council the big middle finger by proposing that two enormous wharf extensions be constructed in the Waitemata Harbour.  Despite a clear message from Council POAL proceeded with the plan and engaged in as clear a case of brinkmanship as you can imagine.  Clearly their focus is only on the bottom line, and not on the environmental effects or the effects on its workers of its decisions.

The most upsetting thing was the complete disdain POAL showed to Auckland Council’s expressed wishes.

Correspondence was exchanged, POAL was asked in that polite Council way to stop work and even talk of a thermonuclear option did not deter it from giving a very clear extended middle finger to the Council.  POAL’s decision to announce on National Radio its response to the letter was unbelievable.

Then the automation project was started.   Aspects of it went live in June last year but quickly struck problems with actual performance not living up to expectations and congestion and a drop in productivity occurring.

From the Herald in January of this year:

Auckland city councillors have recommended Ports of Auckland commission an independent review of its controversial container terminal automation project.

They also want a say in setting the terms of the review.

Auckland Council owns the major imports gateway, which for several months has been experiencing heavy container shipping congestion, with lengthy delays in unloading and consequent freight build up in the North Island freight supply chain.

The port blames the impact of Covid-19 and a stevedore labour shortage for its issues, but management is coming under strong industry and commercial sector criticism for the failure so far to fully implement a major terminal automation project, started in 2016.

Last month’s meeting of the committee which oversees the council-owned organisations noted “significant congestion at the port and the delay to the automation project is playing a role in that”.

The one constant during the past decade of activity?  Chief Executive Tony Gibson who has been CEO of the company since 2011.

Dramatic change is required.  Building a respectful relationship with MUNZ would be a start and it is clear what will be required for this process to commence.

I hope the Council takes dramatic action on this occasion.  And remembers what happened in 2012 and 2015 when POAL was urged to be a respectful corporate citizen and what its response is.

5 comments on “Ports of Auckland – time for change ”

  1. Ad 1

    With Watercare Goff was able to replace the Chair and a couple of Board members, and then the CEO got the shove – but it was on the grounds of being paid too much, rather than on the more substantive issue of failing to plan for Auckland's water needs. Hasn't yet had an effect.

    With Auckland Transport he got the Chair replaced to someone good, and the CEO has proven frankly unable to turn that culture around. They prefer their NZTA client because they get more money from them and with less grief than they do from the poor old Council. Hasn't yet had an effect.

    But with ports having their own governing legislation in the Port Companies Act the Mayor has really just moral force and shaming to go with. It's not like he can invite Worksafe in to audit them to death.

    But the net effect for all three is that these entities drive Auckland and they are making it much worse and quite quickly.

    If you put on top of that the small-scale effect that Panuku is having (particularly compared to Kainga Ora), and the Entrust major ownership of Mercury not coming up for another 50 years, and Council's 20% ownership of Auckland Airport resulting in 0% influence ever, you have in total the following:

    A set of large corporations that are public in name only who regularly humiliate their owners, and do everything they can to enrich themselves at the expense of any policy good for the people.

    This set of companies and entities are some of the most powerful that we have in the country let alone Auckland. Council ought to be the centre of a common accountability framework.

    But to fix it I don't think this Ardern government has an institutional reform bone in them, unfortunately. Even the nationwide water governance reforms are entirely voluntary.

    And to think Max Bradford could reform the entire energy industry in 2 years, and Warren Cooper could revolutionise local government in the same time.

    • mickysavage 1.1

      I have always scratched my head about the effect of the Port Companies Act 1988 which is Rogernomics era legislation.

      It does require ports to have as their principal objective to operate as a successful business, and also requires them to act in accordance with their Statement of Corporate Intent.

      But successful businesses do not kill their employees.

      It is a law change that the Government should consider.

      • Phil 1.1.1

        I have always scratched my head about the effect of the Port Companies Act 1988

        The language and scope of the act is basically identical to the SOE Act of '86 but designed for a group of locally owned rather than crown owned entities. I don't philosophically have a problem with the idea that a port should have a strategic aim to run profitably. *shrugs*

        But, this is an entity 100% owned by the council. It's kind of baffling to me that the sole shareholder hasn't or isn't willing to have a "will no-one rid me of this meddlesome priest" moment and/or told the entire board to take a long walk off a short pier.

  2. ghostwhowalksnz 2

    The CEO of Watercare didnt get the shove… he was still there 6 months after he gave notice. They still dont have a new CEO

    I would think he will pop up in one of those region wide new water companies

  3. Incognito 3

    Gibson’s new role was announced in Dec 2010 and started as CEO of POAL on 1 Feb 2011.

    Do you know if/when his contract as CEO has been renewed since?

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