The Maritime Union of Australia is today fronting the Federal Court seeking an injunction, penalties, and damages against Hutchinson Ports Australia over the midnight sacking of nearly 100 wharfies last Thursday.
The Hong Kong based logistics operator was scheduled to come before the court just after 11 o’clock today as pickets established early Friday in Sydney and Brisbane enter their seventh day.
There has been an outpouring of community support for the sacked workers after they received a text close to midnight on Thursday, and an email advising them never to show up for work again.
Workers’ possessions, the company said, would be returned to them by courier, which was seen as a further attempt to avoid consultation and interface with the sacked staff.
The MUA will allege in court today that Hutchinson did not adequately consult over the redundancies and ignored a dispute resolution clause written into the workers’ Enterprise Agreement.
The union’s National Secretary, Paddy Crumlin, said that “Hutchinson’s conduct doesn’t pass the pub test” and community support for pickets in Sydney and Brisbane show “the Australian public don’t think it’s good enough to sack your workers at midnight by text and email”.
The union said that the company employs an Australian workforce of 224 people which, with 57 Sydney workers and 40 Brisbane employees falling prey to the midnight sacking, amounts to more than 40 per cent of Hutchinson’s staff.
The redundancies had been flagged in a memo sent to workers in July this year, but at that time the company maintained it did “not have a concluded view on the individuals and/or the timing” of the job losses.
“We would not in these circumstances simply ask people to leave immediately,” the memo said, with Hutchinsons assuring its workforce that “before any position is made redundant, we will meet with the affected person [and]give this person an opportunity to respond”.
As it turned out, the emails sacking staff advised workers:
“…your position will not be retained. There are no redeployment opportunities. The intended last day of your employment will be Friday 14 August 2015. [We] realise that this is a lot of information to take in. Accordingly you are will (sic) not be required to attend work effective immediately.”
The company has promised to pay workers up to the final date of employment but the suddenness, method, and scale of the sackings has provoked a political backlash from Labor and the Greens, who have moved to condemn Hutchinson Ports in both chambers of Parliament.
Labor slammed the sackings as “heartless” and “disrespectful” and on Tuesday Senator Doug Cameron successfully moved that the Senate affirm the method of termination was “callous and disrespectful to [Hutchinson’s] employees, and has no place in any workplace”.
The Senate has agreed to a motion put forward by Doug Cameron and myself in support of Hutchinson port workers.
— Senator Lee Rhiannon (@leerhiannon) August 11, 2015
In the House Of Representatives, Greens Industrial Relations Spokesperson Adam Bandt is preparing to move a similar motion which “recognises that the termination of these employees may violate Fair Work laws and the manner in which they were terminated represents disrespectful and harsh business practices that are unwelcome”.
The motion will call on the government to amend the Fair Work Act “so that the internationally recognised right to strike is protected and the Fair Work Commission is not required to issue orders against employees if their employer has acted unfairly and instigated a dispute”.
The row had come before the Fair Work Commission on Friday, and what remains of Huchinson’s workers were instructed to get back on the job under an interim order, but some have refused to do so and freight linked to Hutchinson has been blocked as the community picket lines gain momentum.
The Federal Government has also come under attack for comments from Employment Minister Eric Abetz, who declared that, “If the culture is that employees can text message the boss and they in fact expect the boss to text message them then [sacking workers via text message and email]may be appropriate methodology.”
The Tasmanian Senator, and leader of the government in the upper house, attempted to backtrack as community and union anger escalated with Senator Mitch Fifield reading a statement into Hansard on Tuesday on Abetz’s behalf which recast the method of sacking as “regrettable”.
In the statement Abetz urged parties to the dispute to “comply with all requirements in the enterprise agreement” and engage with the Fair Work Commission to work through the issues because “it is not for industrial parties to pick and choose which of the independent umpire’s decisions they will abide by”.
The outcome of this morning’s court proceedings are expected to be known later today but The Greens’ push to amend the Fair Work Act has opened up a new political battle to reverse Liberal changes to the Fair Work Commission Bandt said had turned it “from an umpire to a policeman”.
“As the current law stands, the Fair Work Commission is required to issue orders against employees, even if their employer has acted unfairly and instigated a dispute,” Bandt said.
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