18 Dec 2020

Auckland port boss' comments on Māori, Pasifika 'offensive' - union boss

From Checkpoint, 5:08 pm on 18 December 2020

The chief executive of Ports of Auckland is being accused of making derogatory comments about Māori and Pasifika employees, with the union claiming some workers are so offended they boycotted the job on Friday.

The Port has been heavily criticised for delays unloading freight, while retailers wait on desperately needed stock at one of their busiest times of the year.

It has also been fined $540,000 over the death of a worker - the second in recent years.

During an interview with Checkpoint, port chief executive Tony Gibson said the port had some safety culture issues.

"We have a large Pacific Island, Māori community, and very often they are what I would call shy in coming forward to address issues," he said.

"We've spoken to them. And we want to ensure that through their leaders that they ... have an avenue to come through and express how they feel about safety. We want a no blame culture."

Mr Gibson is adamant the port's automation project is not to blame for the major issues the company is facing, causing delays in unloading freight and queues of container ships waiting in the Waitematā Harbour.

Maritime Union National Secretary Craig Harrison told Checkpoint port workers disagree.

"What we've been getting told by our members on the port is they seem to be having a lot of ongoing issues around getting automation to work properly and assist them.

"Just a few weeks ago they closed the automation down when one of the automated straddles hit a concrete barrier. And you would have thought that so far into the project - this started February 2019 - that there would have been a fair way down the track of getting it sorted.

"We can't see how they're going to roll this out by Christmas. We can't say how they're going to get rolled out but even March next year unless something drastic is going to change."

Port boss Tony Gibson told Checkpoint the automation problem was "one glitch".

"They might have one glitch on the one day but I think they having glitches every day of the week," Harrison said.

"The CEO has been there while you've had two deaths, and prior to the two deaths another two cases where Ports of Auckland were prosecuted under health and safety. And on top of that you had the incident where the ocean swimmer was tied up with a pilot boat.

"When they talk about taking ownership, I haven't seen any of the management team take ownership of the problem. I haven't seen any of the HR team being disciplined or sacked. So no, I've little confidence that they're going to change.

"What was really upsetting … was the comments he made last night in the media, saying part of the culture was having Pasifika and Māori workers were shy and not coming forward. Our members, workers find that quite offensive. Because they do come forward. And they do raise issues.

"I don't know why he's done that but a couple of members were that upset they rung me this morning and they'd decided not to go to work, to have the day off.

"In this day and age it's not warranted. If you look at our membership it's diverse: Pasifika, Māori women, young people. And if you look at the Auckland branch of the Maritime Union, if you look at executive team which is made up of workers from our industry, it looks like what our industry looks like: young women, young men, Pasifika, Māori, and they all take part and contribute in the debates.

"I don't know why he said that… It seems to me that he seems to think half the trouble with health and safety issues is because he's got Māori and Pacific Islanders working at the Ports of Auckland, and if no one finds that offensive, crikey.

"I think it's derogatory, it doesn't give those people the credit for the knowledge they bring to the table, and who they are as workers. It's disrespectful."

Harrison said regarding safety, workers do feel nervous.

"The port had what they called a fatigue risk management policy. That [covered] the amount the stevedores were able to work in a seven day period.

"We actually had to take the port company on about that because they were actually breaching their own health and safety policies with workers doing excessive hours.

"Now they've pulled it back which is good. They knew this prior to Covid-19, [workers have] been working excessive hours and they've not done anything to sort it out.

"When Ross Clark said in February 2019 they were struggling to get enough staff on board… They've had plenty of time to sort this out.

"I just don't think I've analysed what they needed in their future, I think they actually thought that automation was going to be well and truly working by now and they wouldn't need all these employees.

"Do we keep on waiting as it gets worse and worse? Because New Zealand will be heading into its big export season with produce and there'll be a vast amount of containers carrying the likes of onions and squash to the markets. If they can't get those containers repatriated at Auckland down to other ports down the country, and they're tied up sitting on ships in Auckland, there's going to be a lot of people really concerned and it's going to have an impact.

"It's starting to impact the country now… I think Wellington, they're getting impacted - ships are actually starting to drop cargo in Sydney and letting other vessels pick them up.

"But the mere fact that the ships coming into Auckland now are putting a surcharge on the cargo, everyone's paying for it now. It's only going to get worse unless the company can give us an indication when it's going to be sorted, and they haven't done that."

Harrison said the buck stops with the Ports of Auckland board, chair, chief executive and management team.

"They've been at the helm of this automation process that has gone on for a couple of years. Yes, Covid-19 did have a little impact on it but… they say they're the best port in Oceania. The only other places in Oceania that has got container ports is Australia, that's who they're comparing themselves.

"But if you compare them with Australian ports, I don't think Australian ports have got the backlog and the backup compared to what you're seeing in Auckland."

Harrison estimates the port will continue to be impacted by its current problems for the "vast majority" of 2021.

"The ships are 11 days behind and it takes so long, so many days to train up these new people, and the hours are getting reduced because they haven't got enough staff. It's just going to keep on compounding.

"It will be interesting to see if the Ports of Auckland does come back and tell the public that there will be a date when this is sorted. I don't think they'll give it."