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Reduction in worker hours after stevedore's death is 'absolutely' contributing to cargo delays, Ports of Auckland says

As Ports of Auckland (POAL) continues to struggle with cargo delays, 1 NEWS can reveal that worker hours at the wharf were reduced by about 14 per cent following talks with the Maritime Union (MUNZ) over the death of a worker there in August.

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MUNZ Auckland Local 13 Secretary Russell Mayn talks about safety concerns over long hours at the port, following two deaths in two years. Source: 1 NEWS

The port says that reduction - equivalent to about 1300 work hours per week - is "absolutely" contributing to cargo delays in the region.

Auckland businesses have complained for months about the delays, as container ships have queued in the Hauraki Gulf to wait for a berth at the under-pressure Fergusson Wharf.

The backlog has led to some cargo being redirected to Northport to be discharged there and trucked back to Auckland, as well as prompting a stern warning to the port's board from Auckland Mayor Phil Goff.

POAL says the delays are due to Covid-19, and that ports around the world are suffering similar issues.

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The Auckland mayor said he and the council have the power to change board members if their performance is not acceptable. Source: 1 NEWS

MUNZ, however, says they are due to the port's half-finished automation project.

The delays have also been overshadowed by the recent death of a stevedore on August 30 - father-of-seven Pala'amo Kalati.

Pala'amo (Amo) Kalati, right, with his family. Source: Givealittle

A Maritime New Zealand investigation into Kalati's death is underway, and POAL owner Auckland Council has also commissioned an independent investigation into health and safety at the port.

Following Kalati's death, MUNZ initiated talks with POAL where they argued that long shifts, gruelling workloads and a poor safety culture had led to unsafe conditions on the wharf, contributing to the death.

The union's concerns were also fuelled by the death of worker Laboom Dyer in August of 2018 during an overnight shift, which POAL was fined $540,000 for earlier this month.

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POAL denies that fatigue was a factor in either death.

During those talks, MUNZ has confirmed it threatened POAL with industrial action, and a reduction of watersider work hours resulted from the talks.

MUNZ Auckland Local 13 Secretary Russell Mayn said "the number of hours worked by MUNZ members over a seven-day period and a 28-day period have been significantly reduced.

"MUNZ have argued for changes since 2015 and have continued to, after Amo's death," Mayn said.

"Workers could be made to work 60 hours over a seven-day period - after MUNZ intervention, we have been able to wind that back.

"This required notice of industrial action.

"Both of these deaths have occurred at a time of the night when circadian rhythms are low - people are tired, especially if they've done a lot of hours beforehand - so we think the whole thing needs looking at.

"We've been in talks with the port company about reducing hours - we probably should be doing something different at the moment - but we understand the shortage of cargo and the need to keep that going into the businesses of Auckland.

"We're trying to balance something here."

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Mayn also said MUNZ members had been reminded to operate according to safe operating procedures following the death, "and to refuse to carry out any work deemed unsafe.

"We have again highlighted that you cannot take shortcuts to productivity if that means safety procedures are breached," Mayn said.

Asked whether the reduced worker hours and renewed focus on safety were a factor in the cargo delays - Mayn said no.

"The cargo delays are due to problems with the automation process and ongoing lack of trained staff," he said.

"The automation process has not delivered - the unsuccessful rollout is largely the reason for the massive backlog of freight that has now built up.

"Because the port was relying on their failed automated system, they did not ensure they had sufficient skilled permanent labour and are now running to catch up.

"We've hounded the company over the last two years to bring more staff onboard, but it just hasn't happened."

A fully stocked cargo ship heading out to sea. Source: istock.com

A spokesperson for POAL disputed the union's claim that automation was to blame, saying "Covid-19 lockdowns delayed the implementation of automation, made it more difficult and it is taking longer as a result.

"The project is performing in line with our expectations, but it is not finished," the spokesperson said.

"Mr Mayn's description of the project as 'failed' is like looking at your kitchen renovations when the work is half-done, saying it's a disaster and firing the builder - he should wait until it is finished before passing judgement."

The POAL spokesperson also confirmed that port worker hours were reduced following talks with MUNZ and a threat of industrial action.

"A reduction in maximum hours per week, from 60 hours to 56 hours, was introduced from mid-September," the spokesperson said.

"In late November, an additional change was made which guaranteed consecutive days off for stevedores - prior to this, days off could be non-consecutive, which aids flexibility in rostering.

"We are currently negotiating with MUNZ, who are requesting a further reduction in maximum weekly hours."

Asked whether the reduced hours were contributing to the cargo delays, the port said they "absolutely" are.

"We estimate that, as a result of those two changes, we have lost approximately 14 per cent of available labour hours (or around 1300 hours a week) - that obviously has an impact," they said.

The company is now recruiting about 50 staff to work at the terminal to address the backlog, including crane drivers, straddle drivers and lashers.

Meanwhile, MUNZ are calling for board members of companies to be held personally liable for the deaths of workers, and for them to face criminal charges.

"These problems are the culture of corporate profit over safety, where speed ups, long hours (fatigue) and corner cutting are encouraged by management," MUNZ said in a statement.

"There have been ongoing deaths and injuries in New Zealand ports (and other industries) and until managers and directors are directly held to account, the situation will not change."