Straddle carriers working at Auckland's Fergusson Container Terminal. (Photo: Supplied)

‘What are you doing to stop further deaths?’ Auckland wharfies plead for action on safety

Following the death of a young wharfie there are claims Ports of Auckland is encouraging unsafe practices by paying bonuses for moving cargo faster, reports Maria Slade.

Last month 23-year-old wharfie and father Laboom Dyer suffered fatal injuries when the straddle carrier he was driving tipped over at the Ports of Auckland. The tragedy has prompted a member of another watersider’s family to speak out about the safety culture at the port.

The person, who does not wish to be identified, says the wharfie community feels changes need to be made to prioritise safety over productivity.

In an open letter to the port’s board and management (published below), they identify the ‘box move’ bonus system which rewards workers with a financial bonus for moving a higher number of containers in a month.

Wharfies can earn up to an extra $600 a month under this system, the person claims.

“A few of the old boys say as soon as that was brought in they noticed such a change in drivers. It really had people pushing boundaries… to get that extra money,” the person told The Spinoff.

However Ports of Auckland Ltd (POAL) says its commitment to safety is “genuine and deep”.

“Everyone at Ports of Auckland, including the board and management, have been deeply affected by this accident. We mourn the loss of one of our own,” it said in a statement. “We want to know more than anyone why this accident happened, so we can work to prevent anything like it happening again.”

Around 60% of POAL’s wharfies are members of the Maritime Union of New Zealand (MUNZ). Union secretary Russell Mayn says the box move bonus is port policy and not part of any workplace agreement. “The Maritime Union does not support a bonus that encourages productivity by speed,” he says.

POAL is the only New Zealand port operating such a system, and also allows the straddle carriers – the freight vehicles used to move containers – to be driven faster than anywhere else in the country, he claims. Top speed at Auckland is 25kms an hour, compared with between 20-23kms at other ports, he says.

Following the death of Laboom Dyer the union asked POAL to reduce the maximum speed to 22kms and put the box move bonus on hold but was declined, Mayn says.

The port company said it declined the request because there was no evidence that these factors contributed to the accident.  “All factors will be included in the investigation,” it said.

Ports of Auckland is carrying out its own investigation into last month’s fatal accident and is assisting the independent investigation by WorkSafe New Zealand.

Relations between POAL and MUNZ may not be as acrimonious as they were during the great port dispute of the early 2000s, but they remain tense to say the least.

The collective agreement finally hammered out following that protracted and bitter industrial battle has expired, and port and union are once again in facilitation trying to find common ground.

In the past year alone two disputes have ended up at the Employment Relations Authority – one over last-minute changes to shift times, and a second over breaches to rules preventing workers from being rostered on for more than 60 hours in a seven-day period. In both cases the authority found largely in the union’s favour.

The union is sensitive to publicity: It would not agree to an interview with The Spinoff without several members of its executive and its lawyer being present.

At Ports of Auckland there is a poor culture of safety and trying to maximise profit at the expense of workers, Mayn claims. “Before the last collective agreement I don’t believe there was a culture like that.”

The union’s main concerns in the current collective negotiations are around hours of work and fatigue risk management, he says.

“Really our main concern is there’s been three deaths [in our industry] in less than 18 months. We believe there should be an industry code of practice that is regulated.”

The full text of the open letter and Ports of Auckland’s response is below.

 

An open letter to the directors and management of Ports of Auckland, Aotearoa

Last week the unimaginable happened. A critical accident involving one of our young men that ended with us laying a brother to rest.

Following the accident that stripped a beautiful young lad from the prosperous life he was bound to live, what changes as a company have you made to ensure the safety of our whānau inside your million-dollar gates?

Your workplace is a high risk working environment. The men and women employed by you face such imminent risks as soon as they swipe into your front gates. Those men and women are our partners, our children, our siblings and our whānau. They’re more than just employees there to get a job done.

As someone whose life could have been affected in the same way this young man’s family has been now, I ask you, ‘what you are doing to prevent this from ever happening again?’

Those inside the wharfie lifestyle know far too well the pressures that can be placed on your workers. It is not only expected for them to do the long hours of their job efficiently and effectively, but to get that job done as fast as possible.

But will you rebut by saying that is simply not true? Well then why did you as management implement a ‘box move’ bonus system? This system rewards the drivers of your company with a financial bonus for the greatest amount of container box moves they are able to make within a month.

Does that not seem to you like you are creating a culture that places productivity above the personal health and safety of your workers and their peers?

I know many of those affected by this devastating accident just want to see appropriate culture changes made and better health and safety protocols implemented for the safety of our whānau.

For all those whose lives this has affected, it is something we will remember for a lifetime – but what happens in 10 years when a new bunch of young men and women think of this as nothing but a story?

I plead with you to take action. Do some reflecting on the state this company is in and make changes that will ensure this NEVER happens again.

Your company is supposedly based on ‘family values’ – if that is the case then now is your time to show it.

We should have never had to lay our brother and a beautiful young father to rest last week. Rest in love Boom – a life taken far too soon.

Sincerely,

A devastated member of the wharfies’ greater community.

 

Response from Ports of Auckland

“We completely understand the feelings expressed in this letter. Everyone at Ports of Auckland, including the board and management, have been deeply affected by this accident. We mourn the loss of one of our own and our condolences continue to be offered to his family, all who loved him, worked with him, socialised with him and everyone his life touched.

“Our commitment to safety is genuine and deep. We want to know more than anyone why this accident happened, so we can work to prevent anything like it happening again. We are carrying out our own investigation and we are assisting the independent investigation by WorkSafe New Zealand.

“While these investigations are underway we can’t comment on what we think might be the cause.”


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