At the Hutchison port terminals in Brisbane and in Sydney, Australia, workers on shift are “sitting in”, and other workers are joining community assemblies at the terminal gates.
Their demand is that Hutchison withdraws the redundancies it declared on Thursday 6 August and negotiates with the union over re-equipment and staffing at the terminals.
For up to the minutes reports and pictures, see the Hutchison Ports – Stop Union Busting” Facebook page. Send messages of support to the Queensland MUA branch secretary, Bob Carnegie, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Workers from other port operators, seafarers, members of the CFMEU construction union and the Electrical Trades Unions, students, family members, and other supporters joined the Hutchison workers in Brisbane on 7 August.
At 11:30pm on Thursday night 6 August Hutchison had sacked half their Australian port workforce – 41 out of 84 in Brisbane, 53 out of 110 in Sydney – by email.
The workers were given a week’s notice, but told not to come to work for that week. It could be a long battle, making it necessary to maintain the community assemblies at the terminal gates for a good while. But a battle that can be won.
Hutchison, based in Hong Kong, are the world’s biggest container terminal operator. They started up in Australia only in 2012. They have invested around $700 million to enter the Australian waterfront. They have long leases on their terminals in Brisbane and Sydney. They can’t afford to walk away, and they will find they can’t do anything by trying to bulldoze the workforce.
Recently they have given away customers to DP World, deliberating running down their operation for a while. They replaced their local managers five months ago, and plans now are coming straight from their head office in Hong Kong.
What they are doing makes sense only if their plan is to use a partial shutdown to break the union and re-equip the terminals in order to restart on a low-cost basis.
They started up here only in 2012. Now they have linked up for a new plan with Filipino-based operator ICTSI, which is building a new terminal in Melbourne to open in December 2016.
As a global operator, Hutchison benchmarks its operations and its costs globally. They will want to reduce their costs in Australia to levels similar to those in Hong Kong.
In Hutchison’s home port, Hong Kong, dock workers struck for 40 days in 2013 to win a 9.8% pay rise and some improvements in conditions.
Employment had been outsourced to subcontractors. Pay hadn’t been increased for years. Shifts were up to 24 hours long. Breaks were scanty. Even a non-striker called up by the bosses to tell the media things weren’t so bad said: “In fact, we have short breaks of two to three minutes between vessels berthing at the terminals. Very rarely can I get 15 to 30 minutes. We also take turns to have meals so that we have around 15 to 20 minutes for mealtimes”.
Another benchmark for Hutchison will be the conditions which the Chinese company Cosco has imposed in Piraeus, Greece.
Cosco, which already runs two of three container quays at Piraeus on a 35 year contract. One of the measures recently forced on the Greek government by the capitalist Eurozone leaders is privatisation of the ports of Piraeus and Thessaloniki. Hutchison tried for Thessaloniki when there was previous talk of privatising it, in 2008.
Cosco’s contract at Piraeus has been successful for Cosco. Traffic has grown to three million teu; Piraeus is now Europe’s eighth busiest container port; Cosco plans a fourth quay to expand to six million teu. The quay not yet contracted out at Piraeus has strong union organisation. Its traffic has stagnated while Cosco’s quays thrive with no union recognition and no collective bargaining. Workers who tentatively formed a “workers’ committee” were sacked.
The Cosco workers are mostly employed by subcontractors or subcontractors of subcontractors. Most are on 24 hour call, with only a few hours’ notice of shifts, no overtime pay, and paid around €600 ($900) a month.
They have no meal breaks, not even toilet breaks: managers tell them to urinate into the sea or take cups with them. “Bouncers” patrol the quays.
Hutchison also runs Felixstowe, Britain’s bigger container terminal.
Li Ka-Shing, chair of the board of Hutchison Whampoa, is the richest man in Asia, with wealth totalling US$32 billion.
Community assembly in Brisbane
At the terminal gate in Sydney
Hannah (right) has been sacked by Hutchison in Brisbane; her sister Holly (left) and her dad (centre) have been sacked by Hutchison in Sydney
from Workers Liberty