By Andrew Martin
Qube, a major stevedoring and logistics firm, has escalated an industrial dispute in the Port of Fremantle, Western Australia (WA), with the Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) – the maritime division of the CFMMEU. Protracted Enterprise Agreement (EA) negotiations have broken into open conflict with Qube using scab labour to discharge bulk cargo in what could be a long-running battle.
Qube specialises in bulk and general stevedoring, which includes steel, timber, grains, fertiliser, automotive and earthmoving products – to name just some of the goods they move. The company alleges that their workforce has taken strike action against the company since 30th July over 44 claims that are part of EA negotiations.
This assertion by Qube is not quite true. The 125 workers employed by Qube are taking, as is their legal right, protected industrial action. According to the MUA, the workers have not put in notice for a stoppage or refused to attend work. They maintain that Qube has locked them out.
As part of the bargaining process, the workers have stipulated that they are available if they are given orders for a shift at 2pm, the day before any scheduled work at the latest. This is a very reasonable and moderate demand but has become a major sticking point in negotiations. Qube allocates shifts at 4pm, despite knowing well in advance when ships will dock. Qube’s main competitor Linx and other stevedoring firms provide shift notification at 2pm.
Allocating the shifts two hours earlier would relieve the anxiety of knowing whether workers have a shift or not. Even two hours earlier would enable a better work-life balance and give workers a better opportunity to plan their lives. This is especially important since most workers are part-time and many hold second jobs; stevedoring has become precarious employment.
In bulk and general stevedoring, a common saying is that the workload is either “feast or famine”. The MUA is seeking to humanise what is a brutal industry. Stevedoring is dangerous work. The safety standards that apply on land are absent as soon as a worker steps on a ship. Stevedoring and shipping companies are a law unto themselves, and they want to keep it that way.
According to Mirage News, Qube has refused to agree to a single bargaining claim relating to multiple safety issues that the MUA has raised over the last 15 months. As in other ports, Qube has forced casual workers to do dangerous work that they have not received training for, and in many cases, Qube has not provided them with the necessary basic protective equipment. This includes work such as removing chain-lashing and discharging bulk cargo.
The MUA has raised concerns about the overuse of consecutive twelve-hour shifts and coercion by supervisors to extend shifts beyond what workers have been allocated. Even permanent workers do not have an established roster but are given daily orders that leave them working at any hour of the day, and they can be rotated through day, evening and night shifts in one week. Many workers complain of being fatigued and stretched to the limit.
Qube is a combative employer; they are not concerned with flesh and blood. They are solely fixated on the pursuit of profit. This pursuit often leaves them prone to irrational excesses, and in Fremantle, they may well have overstepped the mark. Qube has admitted to using scab labour to discharge steel bulk cargo from a ship, the AAL Dampier at Berth 11 and 12 in Fremantle. They have used demoralised stevedores and the ship’s crew to unlash and discharge the cargo.
The MUA has filed formal complaints with Worksafe and AMSA about breaches of the Navigation Act and Occupational Health and Safety laws prohibiting seafarers from doing stevedoring work. MUA stevedores assembled at the port have witnessed the seafarers and other scabs damaging cargo. The ship is still berthed at Freo, with much of its cargo still in the ship’s hull.
It is not surprising Qube have used seafarers to discharge cargo. In April 2018, Qube flew in scabs via helicopter in a dispute over similar issues at Webb Dock West in the Port of Melbourne. Seafarers have become increasingly exploited throughout the Covid-19 pandemic. They are often press-ganged into service, unable to disembark from the ship, so feel compelled to obey orders.
Many seafarers have been stranded at sea, unable to return home, forced to work beyond their contracts. The International Transport Federation (ITF) estimates that over 150 000 seafarers are working beyond their contracts, unable to return home or seek any relief from their duties.
The WA workers are the last to settle EA negotiations, with Qube offering 2.5% pay rises in national negotiations. The WA branch has been the most militant branch of the union over the last twenty years, with a much higher level of participation of union members in the union’s activities with strong delegates and OH&S committees. Its members are refusing to settle until their objections to current work practices are resolved. They are prepared for the long haul.
Speaking at a rally at the Port of Fremantle on 14th August, Will Tracy, the WA branch secretary of the MUA, stated: “It’s a moral injustice that Qube rob their workers of the ability to plan their lives outside of work… there is support from across the union movement for these workers. We must go one day longer. There is a determination, willingness and conviction from Qube workers here to see this blue through. The MUA is here to stay.”
The WA MUA has sought national support from other unions to win the dispute. The Victorian and Tasmanian construction branches of the CFMMEU have pledged $50,000 in solidarity. Workers at Qube’s main competitor Linx have given $3,500. In total $100 000 has been raised for the Qube wharfies on strike.
Donations can be made to this account:
Account Name: Qube Dispute 2021
BSB: 882 000
Acc No: 100145032
The author was formerly a stevedore and delegate for the MUA at Qube in Melbourne.