On the Picket Line

New Zealand Maritime Union fights deaths at Auckland Port

By Felicity Coggan
May 24, 2021

AUCKLAND, New Zealand — “It’s what we said would happen. Bonus chasing, productivity chasing, it was all going to lead to disaster, and it has,” Carl Findlay, vice president of Local 13 of the Maritime Union, which organizes dockworkers at the port here, told the Militant  May 6. Two stevedores have been killed at the port in the past two years and others seriously injured.

Laboom Dyer died in 2018 after the giant straddle carrier he was using to move containers tipped and fell. In 2020 Amo Kalati was crushed to death when a container fell on him. In the past eight years, 13 workers have died working on ships or at ports nationwide.

Under growing pressure from the union, a health and safety review of Ports of Auckland, commissioned by the company’s owner, Auckland Council, was released in March. It found “systemic” problems and recommended that the company begin to “prioritise safety over productivity and profitability.”

The report is “a vindication of why we were fighting in 2012,” said Findlay. That year the union carried out a five-week fight against the company’s demands for “flexible” work schedules and contracting out union jobs, including bringing a contract labor-hire firm onto the port. Though the workers initially forced the company to back off from its plans, the bosses kept pushing.

“The bonus system was expanded, eight-hour shifts were replaced by 12-hour shifts with mandatory overtime,” said Russell Mayn, secretary-treasurer of Local 13, May 6. “And they began an aggressive campaign to remove the Maritime Union from the port.”

The report said bosses viewed workers who raised health and safety issues as “troublemakers.” “We’ve reported near misses and accidents and when we do a lot of that’s ignored,” one stevedore, who wasn’t named because he feared losing his job, told Radio New Zealand March 4. “Sometimes guys get punished, get a reduced number of shifts, and that’s the culture of management, that’s how they treat us.”

“The systemic and repeated safety failures resulted in the deaths of two stevedores which the union believes were totally preventable,” Mayn told the Militant.

Bosses at the Auckland port have been battling their larger rival in Tauranga to attract shipping. While the Auckland port remains the biggest port for imports, Tauranga is the major export outlet, and can handle larger ships. The company’s net profit dropped in 2019 and 2020.

Port CEO Tony Gibson tried to put the blame elsewhere. He told Radio New Zealand that Maori and Pacific Island staff were “shy in coming forward to address issues.” Since 2014 the company has faced several prosecutions and paid hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines over injuries and deaths.

Jo Bower, whose husband Neil was severely injured in 2014 when he fell off a ship, slammed Gibson’s response. “It’s productivity, profitability comes over safety,” she told Radio New Zealand. “Why else would you have a productivity bonus?”

Membership in the union is growing.