Port Otago jobs on the line

Otago port workers are "disappointed" with their employer's announcement today that it may cut up to 35 jobs from its stevedore operation at Port Chalmers.

Maritime Union national president Phil Adams said tonight the workers had rejected escalating demands for stevedores to switch to "vessel operations teams".

At present, workers handle cargo work on the basis of an eight-hour day with overtime, but Mr Adams said traffic through the port can be patchy, with big container ships regularly arriving at the end of the week and requiring up to 36 hours work.

Maritime Union members and Rail and Maritime Transport Union workers in August voted to reject restructuring proposals from the port company because they would erode conditions or safety, or lead to redundancies.

But Mr Adams told NZPA that when workers initially agreed last week to a company proposal for some workers to be transferred to vessel teams, the management came back and increased by 10 the number of workers it wanted under the new deal.

That escalation had resulted in the whole arrangement being rejected, and Mr Adams said the workers' trust was being eroded.

"There appears to be a new aggressive attitude amongst management which has nearly destroyed a previously good working relationship," he said.

There had been about six rounds of redundancies since 1989, but almost no industrial stoppages over the past decade.

The workers' existing agreement did not expire until July 2010.

Port Otago said a review of its "labour provision model" might mean up to 35 people lose their jobs following a "marked deterioration" in cargo volumes.

Most of the jobs expected to be axed were those of frontline stevedores, said port chief executive Geoff Plunket.

The port employed 320 people, 180 of them in its stevedoring business, and Mr Plunket said job cuts were a "necessary response" to economic conditions and a downturn in numbers of ships and containers passing through the port.

Two major shipping lines had consolidated their calls and, overall, the port had lost about 15 percent of its cargo traffic.

"The combined effect of shipping line consolidation, supply chain changes by major exporters and a downturn in the global economy is being felt across the sector," he said.

The company had consulted unions in an effort to minimise the job losses, but hadn't been able to negotiate a "more flexible workforce structure", which left it with no option but redundancies, for the first time since the mid 1990s.

"The rigid structure of our frontline workforce is not sustainable," Mr Plunket said. Results of the review would be announced before Christmas.

Earlier, Mr Plunket said job cuts were a "necessary response" to economic conditions and a downturn in numbers of ships and containers passing through the port.

Two major shipping lines had consolidated their calls at the port, closure of the Fisher and Paykel appliance factory and the Brightwater sawmill had affected export volumes and, overall, the port had lost about 15 percent of its cargo traffic.

This was despite Fonterra building a new 45,000 tonne drystore and a 17,000 tonne coolstore on the old Fisher and Paykel factory site at Mosgiel, partly to support its shipments through Port Otago, a move which Mr Plunket said was effectively neutral for port traffic.

The port was facing significant reductions in trans-shipment containers handled, he said.

"The combined effect of shipping line consolidation, supply chain changes by major exporters and a downturn in the global economy is being felt across the sector," he said.

"Those trends ... have already affected our operations".

The port company had hoped to avoid the present situation, in which the proposed restructure would hurt the affected workers and their families.

The company said it had consulted unions in an effort to minimise the job losses, but hadn't been able to negotiate a "more flexible workforce structure", which left it with no option but redundancies for the first time since the mid 1990s.

Mr Plunket told NZPA agreements on flexibility had previously been negotiated with unions, but there had been difficulties in the way they operated and the company had been unable to have those things modified.

The proposed redundancies were no reflection on the commitment or skill of the laid-off workers but "the rigid structure of our frontline workforce is not sustainable", Mr Plunket said.

 

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